The World Turned Upside Down

Topics

The popular music we grow up with is the music that matters most. It defines us in a way that books and artworks rarely do. As times change, and the music with them, we tend to feel that the music of our own time had some special ingredient, some quality that is lacking in what came after. We can admire and even love the music of later generations (and of earlier as well) but it just doesn't simmer in our souls in the same way. 

Nothing is quite so fine an occasion to return to the sounds of our youth, and revel in what we had, as an anniversary. Round-number years are great opportunities for them, and there hasn't been a rounder year than 2020 since 2000, so why not go for broke? It is, after all, the golden anniversary of the year 1970, and that feels like an extraordinary opportunity to relive the sounds of times gone by. Break out the beer, and make it a Heineken or St. Pauli Girl, because this was long before supermarkets lined shelves with local craft beers. Get some chips, put on the headphones and load up that old turntable with some seriously scratched vinyl. It's going to be a terrific trip down memory lane.

Wait -- who said "Terrifically awful!"? Are there hecklers in the audience? Or could it be those very Baby Boomers who, according to my eloquent preamble above, were the 1970 adolescents who should now be in high celebratory mode? Is it possible they do not look back with sentimental affection at this key musical decade of their youth?

Of course, it was a tough year, in many ways. There was the War in Vietnam, which expanded that year to Cambodia. There were the notorious shootings of students at Kent State (by the National Guard) and Jackson State (by the local police). A cyclone in what is now Bangladesh killed half a million people over 10 days, roughly the death toll of the first six months of the COVID-19 epidemic. (George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh the following year was in part a response to the cyclone's devastation, though the toll in the war of liberation that followed was much greater.) There was a near-disaster with a space shuttle, and a real disaster when some Weathermen playing with explosives blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse. 

All of this was disturbing, but it is probably not what makes the Woodstock Generation grimace at a year in music whose spiritual beginning might be the Altamont concert disaster on December 6, 1969, presaging the following year's banquet of blood and gore. Then what's eating us about the big 7-0?

The Year the Music Died?

First of all, 1970 will be remembered as the year the greatest rock band in history officially broke up -- a sour enough note to put a damper on any celebrations, though it wasn't official until the last day of the year, when Paul McCartney filed suit. (Be on the lookout for apocalyptic echoes this New Year's Eve.) But the sense had been growing throughout the year that they were done. Moreover, it was the year that both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, and their rather ignominious deaths turned a warped mirror on a youth culture that defined itself by its musical heroes. And other heroes did little to compensate. Cream had already gone to pieces; so had the Animals. Brian Jones, original leader of the Rolling Stones, drowned in a swimming pool in July 1969. In 1970, Diana Ross left the Supremes, Garfunkel left Simon, Dave Clark and the Five went separate ways and the Turtles crawled off in different directions. Bob Dylan, after a string of albums in the sixties that established him as an American songwriting genius, was in the midst of a creative funk that wouldn't end until 1975 with Blood on the Tracks. Even Led Zeppelin, having left the starting gate in a fury with two earth-shaking albums, released what remains their least impressive effort.

But perhaps the worst of it was that what had seemed, oddly enough, like an organic whole fragmented into many directions, none of which obviously had the creative spirit and musical quality that characterized what had gone before. That entity we called "Sixties music" was probably an illusion, or at best a Cartesian product of post-British Invasion rock, California psychedelia, Motown, Macon and the New York folk scene. Nevertheless, the impression set in that we were leaving behind contrapuntal harmonies and old Fender tube amps and poignant acoustic guitar chords in alternate tunings, and into the breach rushed a battalion of noisemakers (Grand Funk, the James Gang, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash...) who then fought it out with a new brand of nasal folk rockers who had never played an actual folk song (James Taylor, Neil Young, Van Morrison) and some key-tickling commercial songwriters (Elton John, Carole King) for a place on the charts. 

As for the pop charts, in December 1969 the Jackson Five released their debut album, followed in short order by two more; this was not taken lightly by rock audiences used to the more serious soul music of the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Flanked by the Archies, the Partridge Family, the Osmonds, the Cowsills and the fading but still active 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Jacksons' onslaught seemed to herald the victory of bubblegum pop and the spiritual death of AM radio. This was a big deal. It was on AM that we first heard the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, as well as most of the psychedelic bands from Haight-Ashbury and Laurel Canyon. It was where "Sounds of Silence", "Incense and Peppermints", "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" and "Windy" became known to millions of kids. That's what we were giving over to "ABC-123" and other jingles. It was downright depressing.

The whole thing amounted to not just a change in musical taste, but the end of a generation's most characteristic form of expression, which had merged great songwriting with new musical sounds and, not incidentally, aspirations of universal love and peace. The harmonies were for world harmony; the songs were all "folk" songs. The Summer of Love... Woodstock... "All we are saying / Is give peace a chance" - that's the world that was going away, yet the "bomber jet planes" had not turned into swallowtails, in spite of Joni Mitchell's anthem.

Not to flog a lifeless turntable, but yet another trauma was that the experimental spirit once exemplified by Hendrix or Sgt. Pepper showed signs of being channeled through the classical avant-garde and free jazz, with bands apparently competing to create the least hummable, danceable, or indeed listenable tracks under the banner of "progressive rock". Even where Stockhausen, Cage and Berio didn't rule, snippets or entire songs based on earlier classical pieces found their way onto album after album. And 1970 would have a good claim to being the coming-out of this trend: a host of brash new artists started (and sometimes ended) their careers with some wild entry into this melee, while more established ones got busy setting up prog obelisks like Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother for future imitators to gawk at. (This is all a bit ironic since it has been fairly well documented that the same classical avant-garde was already an important influence on the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper, but this is not about making sense, it's about how things felt at the time.)

Bad enough for a year in music? Well, don't relax yet: 1970 was also the year that saw release of an album by psychotic mass murderer Charles Manson (who had originally recorded several of the songs at the Beach Boys' studio), and one by the questionably talented political irritant Screaming Lord Sutch. (If the album is of any interest it is only because the Lord had a truly royal list of backing musicians -- Jimmy Page, who also co-wrote half the songs, John Bonham, Jeff Beck, Nicky Hopkins and Noel Redding, among others.) "Coming down fast" does seem like a good phrase to capture what was going on with rock and roll in 1970.

But I was so much older then...

That this somber assessment is one-sided, and perhaps hopelessly scratched, can be seen from a quick look at what did not go awry in that tumultuous year, at least as far as music is concerned. Let's begin again with the Beatles, who did not, after all, fall off the face of the earth. After some earlier efforts of an experimental temper, each of them released their first rock solo albums in 1970. Among these were McCartney and George's All Things Must Pass, which would remain among the most admired post-Beatles recordings. Simon and Garfunkel, who had set themselves a high bar on 1968's Bookends, jumped right over it with their last studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, which included the ultimate New York down-and-out saga, "The Boxer". While Dylan may have been in a slump, Joni Mitchell was in anything but. If her first two albums set the strings of one's soul to an alternate tuning, Ladies of the Canyon was not only packed with great songs but began her widely hailed move towards expressionistic keyboard-driven songwriting. Most critics find the source of that in 1971's Blue, but it started with Ladies, which I still think is the better album. Received wisdom also be damned as regards Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die, an album panned by some, including the inimitable Robert Christgau. This was the album that made Traffic a fixture of 1970's college dorms, and the following year their Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys put the mortar between the bricks, so to speak.

That's beginning to sound like a decent enough year; and then there is Layla, probably the pre-eminent post-cream recording with Eric Clapton. And Abraxas, the album that made Santana a household name. Astonishingly, the Grateful Dead may have released their two best studio albums that year, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. While Elton John would be moving on to greater popularity and perhaps greater feats of songwriting, in 1970 he not only made two very fine albums that brought him international recognition (Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, the latter still among my favorites of his) but also performed the famous radio concert that would be released the following year as 11-17-70. CSN, as Crosby Stills & Nash are affectionately known, added an ampersand and a "Y" to create Déja Vu with Neil Young -- an album so deeply burned into the musical soul of a generation that one merely has to think of the name and it starts up like a jukebox: "Ca-a-a-rry O-on, Lo-ove is coming...." Not much less significant is The Band's Stage Fright, the last of a breathtaking trilogy of albums that Greil Marcus has characterized (in Mystery Train) as a sort of triptych of the American experience.

In the R&B department, or soul music as it was called at the time, it was a year of new beginnings: first albums as solo artists by Diana Ross, Curtis Mayfield and Buddy Miles, and the first Parliament and Funkadelic albums all hit the market. The Five Stairsteps and the Chairmen of the Board had their biggest hits that year. Of course, the big news was Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, which belongs neither more nor less in a discussion of rock music than Soft Machine's Third and other heavily jazz-inflected prog-rock albums. (The following year John McLaughlin would sweep away the boundaries with his first Mahavishnu Orchestra album, The Inner Mounting Flame.) This is a lot to take in, and as you will see in what follows, there was much more than that. 

Suddenly, 1970 is starting to sound less like the crucifixion of rock and more like a second coming -- a carefully chosen metaphor, as it was also the year of Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm sure we didn't understand then what it all amounted to. In the next part of this series I intend to do a survey of what was really going on that year, if only to disabuse my own generation of the notion that our once rich heritage was suddenly shredded by amateurs with an ax and a fuzzbox, or a synthesizer and a handful of patch cords.

Mr. Alterman is a writer, musician and native Brooklynite who has taught philosophy around New York City, performs as a singer-songwriter, and writes about local cultural issues on his blog The Parrot's Lamppost.

I think it would be interesting to read if Mr. Alterman distinguishes between those records which could be considered something of a continuation of the 1960s (I'm thinking perhaps Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) and those that more clearly prefigured the coming decade, such as Layla and John Barleycorn. I'd love to hear his thoughts on this distinction, which i hope we can all agree on, even if our particular candidates differ. Thanks for a great article!

Submitted by Eric Alterman on September 18, 2020 - 16:55

Regarding the other Mr. Alterman's provocative suggestion, a few things:
1. There are three more parts coming - the next two will say a little about what was continuing, ending, moving forward, etc.
2. When I think of 60s rock the first thing I think of is great contrapuntal harmonies - Beatles, Beach Boys, Association, Four Tops, Mamas and Papas, Tommy James and the Shondells, etc. For me, that was all but dead soon after 1970, and in that respect, everything was new.
3. However, it is far from cut and dried, as the example of the two Grateful Dead albums demonstrate: certainly they have something continuing, as the Dead's origins were in a country and bluegrass; but they are also a break from the psychedelia the Dead had been doing on Anthem, Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead, and they were very much in sync with the acoustic turn that happened in the new decade (see the next post in this series).
4. The best claim to new was heavy metal, which was not my cup of tea in most cases. Jazzrock and prog sort of hit their stride; they could be called new, since there was a lot more to come than what had gone before; but early rock and urban blues and both had jazz elements, and as jazz styles and rock more or less changed in tandem. (A bit on this in the 3rd part, but it could really be a separate article.)
5. So, it's complicated. Traffic had released three albums and several hit singles before 1970; are they part of the new, or continuation of the old? I think you could say that a kind of sound among prog and college-oriented groups matured in the early 70s, so after a few years it was recognizably different from 60's rock.

Submitted by Me on September 21, 2020 - 14:39

Add new comment