1971 – Never A Dull Moment – David Hepworth
Ah, 1971. It was a year of transformation for me. I started the year aged 16 and turned 17 three-quarters of the way through. It was the year that I realised that there was more to life than parsing irregular Greek verbs and discovered the three Bs, booze, blow and birds. And the soundtrack to the year was pretty good with Who’s Next and the wonderful Baba O’Reilly, Led Zep IV with Stairway to Heaven, Lennon’s Imagine, Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Neil Young’s Harvest, the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and, if you must, Carole King’s Tapestry.
One of those topics for pub conversations when the only other option is to stare vacuously at each other is which was the best year for popular music. A very good friend of mine steadfastly refuses to believe anything good was produced after 1973, for him the year that music died – yes, Don McLean’s tiresome American Pie was released in 1971. Hepworth nails his colours firmly to the mast. Forget 1966, 1971 was the year that saw more influential albums released than any year before or since and was “the most febrile and creative time in the history of popular music”. TV was nowhere, the film industry was tanking, but music was vibrant.
This is the thesis behind Hepworth’s affectionate, sometimes irreverent and sometimes tongue-in-cheek survey of the music biz in 1971. The book is laid out chronologically with a chapter for each month of the year, from which Hepworth picks out some notable albums or artists who were emerging at the time. The problem with this approach is that the book rapidly descends into a muddy mix of thee thematic and chronological approaches and I can’t help thinking that a straight thematic approach would have served him better. Music doesn’t fit into neat chronological packages – there is the conception, the recording and then the release, all of which takes time. The subtitle to the book illustrates his problem. The Rod Stewart album of that name was actually released in 1972.
That aside, there is much in the book to think that there is something in what Hepworth has to say. It was the year that saw the first mega star charity bash, George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh, a concert which he could only persuade Clapton to perform at in aid of starving children if he was supplied with his favourite heroin. It was also the concert at which Dylan took the unusual step of playing an oldie, Like A Rolling Stone – one of the fascinating insights of the book is that until then bands touring, and they all toured prodigiously then, thought they had to play current or new tracks – a landmark event along with Elvis Presley’s residency at Vegas which persuaded groups that they could resuscitate their back catalogue and which launched what is now termed heritage rock.
Technology assisted rather than hindered the music, the synthesiser became established as a bona fide rock instrument and there were more family groups and fey singer songwriters than you could shake a stick at. The book’s finest chapter includes the pen pictures of three London lads, Cat Stevens. Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart. For me one of the endearing features of the book were the social insights – record stores with listening booths, scouring the music press, NME and Sounds, to gen up on the latest records and forming a sort of collective to share the burden of buying albums and swapping them, all of which I did.
This book won’t feature in the top 100 books of all time but Hepworth makes a fine case for 1971, although for me it set the pendulum swinging in a way that needed the punk uprising of 1976 to rectify.