Ok, I'm over 60 and listen to some music my loved ones call “moldy.” But I like to think that much of the music of the 70s holds up well. Anyway, in addition to the indie and alternative music my son and friends at ATG keep me current with, I still play that moldy stuff.
Much of 70's music – and for my purposes here that means the period from around 1968 to 78 – is just music, meant to entertain, get you “up” or help you get high. But two strains have had me thinking recently because they seem to pinpoint something that changed early on in the decade, something that maybe points to a broader dynamic we can see playing out in the recent “Arab Spring” and on the streets of American cities.
The first of the 70's music broke over the happy silliness of Beatlemania. It took rock and folk and added drugs to produce the psychedelic movement with Jefferson Airplane and then the Grateful Dead. The Beatles themselves started it with "Magical Mystical Tour." But while this and much else of the time was just escapism – not to denigrate such fun – the strain that I'm focused on here was the music of protest and revolution. In the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and in the middle of the Vietnam war movement, songs like “What About Me” by Quicksilver Messenger Service (1970) addressed the issues of pollution, war, repression, the 99% but also looked forward to change through confronting the forces of authority challenging them – “what you going to do about me?” Other songs of the period looked forward to just jumping over the mess of this world in the post-apocalyptic “Wooden Ships” (Jefferson Airplane & CS&N, 1969) or by hijacking a starship (Jefferson Starship's "Blows Against the Empire," 1970). Whether it was confronting the man or escaping him, this music looked toward a better future, a fundamental re-ordering of society.
But by 1972, disappointment, alienation and a sense of loss had already begun to set in, despite the fact that we would shortly be seeing the first seeming accomplishments of the “attack” against the old order. Richard Nixon would be forced to take us out of the Vietnam War (the Paris Peace Accords, 1973) and himself would be forced from office (1974). I was at a CSN&Y concert in Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City on the night of August 8, 1974. One of the group came out to explain a slight delay by informing us all “it's over,” Nixon had resigned. Music and fireworks celebrated this “victory.”
But The Who, sensing that maybe it would not be so easy, announced in “Won't Get Fooled Again” (1971) that after the “fighting in the streets” our team on the left would now be our team on the right. Jackson Browne was asking in “Doctor My Eyes” (1972) if perhaps we had already seen too much without anything really getting any better? Pink Floyd was suggesting that maybe it was all really about money and that anyone who doubted it was living on the "Dark Side of the Moon" (1973). Jethro Tull – Ian Anderson always seeming to be bitingly aware of how real life disappoints our dreams – noted how each day was like “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” (1974) and, in “OneWhite Duck” (1975), that something must be wrong in our brains if we were “so patently unrewarding.”
By 1977, Jackson Browne was “Running on Empty” and the year later, Jefferson Starship began its transformation into pop. Most of the supergroups fell apart in a haze of booze and drugs. Everyone else went to work. And the Fall of Nixon led to the two hapless president – Ford and Carter – and then in 1980, the “return of the repressed” victory of Barry Goldwater in the form of Ronald Reagan.
The hopes and dreams of the 70s were real and so was the movement on the streets. We – and I am taking some liberties here including myself in this – did remove a president and end a war. But the hopes that any of this would really change anything fundamental or in some way make our daily lives “better” or “happier” were not realized.
We've seen in the past year new movements in the streets, toppling governments and challenging the economic order. The experience of the 70s reminds that the push for real change leads to reaction; the harder the push, the greater the reaction. Society is, by evolution, a essentially conservative adaptation. The force of inertia fights against any change of direction. But the movement of the Arab Spring is more powerful than anything we experienced in the 70s because it is more necessary, more mass based. The Occupy movement is more informed by history than we were in the 70s. And it is so much clearer now, and in so many ways, that the world we live in has serious problems that don't seem to be getting better on their own, by business as usual.
Leaving the last word to Neil Young, who remained sideways hopeful despite everything we've seen since the 70's, keep on rockin in the Free World.