The 1970’s

The 60’s stopped dead. What replced all of those beads, kaftans and unfeasably successful comedians?

Glam. Disco. Punk. New wave. Heavy metal. Funk. Prog. There are a lot of emergent movements in the 70’s, some of which overlap – the distance between glam and disco is nearly nothing – and some of which clearly don’t. But what all these genres have in common is that they will have legacy going forward. The Long Seventies extend a decent distance into the Eighties, and there’s a fair argument to be made in the case of disco they extend all the way until now, and the multiplicity of genres which develop in the 70’s will, ultimately, go on to have more direct resonance than anything the 60’s produced. The Long Sixties died in 1970. The Long Seventies dig well into the 80’s – probably at least until 1983. The obvious question here, then, is why? What is it about the Seventies that meant their cultural impact has a momentum that the Sixties, despite the mythological placement in the cultural memory, didn’t?

At least part of the answer comes from the degree to which these genres feed off each other. The significance in glam and disco being bedfellows is not so much musically – broadly speaking glam tends to be all guitars, drum work and simple production, disco tends to be synthesized, four-on-the-floor beats and over-produced – but how easy it is to move from one to the other because of how adjacent they are. Glam looks shiny, glittery and bright and so does disco. Both genres are designed to be danced to and have little ambition beyond being entertaining. Both genres revel in over-the-top excess primarily for its own value. Both genres embrace gender fluidity and sub-cultures not associated with traditional rock music. So if you’re a music fan in the 70’s and the writing’s on the wall for glam, moving over to a love of disco isn’t so much desirable as practically inevitable. Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Sister Sledge replace Sweet, The Bay City Rollers and T.Rex in the charts but there is enough similarity to easily carry over fans from the earlier style to the latter one. Funk, too, easily pairs with disco and will go on to influence and be absorbed by a whole host of other bands (not least of which, Talking Heads). Glam’s history can only be measured for a period of about three years but it feeds into the emergent disco style and will have its own descendent when we reach the New Romantics – glam leads to disco leads to New Romantics leads to goths and so on. It’s not that these genres musically influence each other, it’s that fans can move from one to the other with minimal fuss. Genre momentum is thus maintained.

This isn’t much the case for the dominant genres of the Sixties. Prog rock is directly descended from the psychedelic movement but nobody’s mistaking Tales From Topographic Oceans for Sgt Pepper. Of course, prog went out of its way to break free of the past, merging high and low culture in an effort to elevate rock music to something of the status that classical (and latterly jazz) music enjoyed, if not particularly successfully. But that “break free” is the point – by consciously rejecting the scene that prog initially grew from it also helped kill that scene. It’s not that there are no 70’s psychedelic bands but you can’t construct an argument that psychedelia remains a dominant cultural form in the Seventies. Prog itself didn’t last all that much longer than glam in its core years, and the more socially relevant impact of punk made much of prog look naïve and hopelessly out of touch by comparison, but even so prog too would have some degree of momentum outside of the 70’s – even as the genre disintegrated the groundwork was laid for the likes of Marillion and Pendragon in the 80’s (long hair and overly-serious attitudes also remain intact). These overlapping genres at least partly help explain why the 70’s, musically, has a longer-term impact on the culture that followed than the 60’s.

But one style dominates the 70’s over and above any other, and that’s disco. Disco is the big headline from the decade and it’s sometimes easy to forget just what a huge deal it was. Disco has never courted – nor received – much in the way of critical praise but then again, the sheer scale of disco pretty much renders that irrelevant. The singles charts will continue to be dominated by disco into the 80’s and such was disco’s influence that even old-school bands like The Rolling Stones felt the need to flirt with the genre. Plenty of otherwise-successful bands also fell in line – Abba were a straightforward pop band, and indeed the most popular band in the world at that stage, but even they threw out Voulez-Vous, their disco album. It’s not their best work, because of course it isn’t – they’re not a disco band, they’re a pop band playing at disco. Abba’s strength, especially in the second half of their career, is their ability to merge great pop songs with grown-up, adult, but often melancholic emotional content and that’s not exactly a clean match to disco. Yet still they felt the need to do it. Voulez-Vous is, in fact, the only Abba album not better than its predecessor, and disco was a one-and-done deal for them. Abandoning the disco approach led to Super Trouper, which is an extremely good album, and The Visitors, which is simply genius and one of the best albums of the 80’s (and its failure to be recognised as such does them a genuine disservice). But such is disco’s power that people still think of Abba as a disco band, even although they’re quite palpably not. Disco consumed everything in its path and, like it or loathe it, it reigned supreme.

Disco’s scale, though, could also be a curse. The Bee-Gee’s had a perfectly decent career prior to “Jive Talking” – not, to be fair, spectacularly interesting but you know, they were doing alright. Then along comes disco, and specifically Saturday Night Fever – the biggest selling album in the U.S. and the UK in 1978 – and its game over for the folk-band version and hello disco for ever more. The Bee-Gees career couldn’t really have soared any higher – both as a band and as individual members – but it also meant that they would forever be seen as a disco band. And no matter how hard they tried to push back against it disco would be how they were defined, to the extent that there were plenty of people who had no idea they had a decade-long career before disco came along. From a sales perspective this could hardly be better news, but as musicians it crucially limited what the band could get away with, and the “death” of disco, when (and if) it eventually arrived, meant that it took a lot of bands down with them. The Bee-Gees were luckier than most – the 80’s weren’t a great time for them though at least they had an ongoing career, but the 70’s would be where they were forever fixed in the public consciousness and it would forever limit how they are seen.

And yet there’s an inherent problem with the scale of disco. Because disco is, by design, something light and disposable it also means that, if one wants something a bit more intelligent in one’s music, then we must turn away from the dominant form. Disco is a crucial component in the gay rights movement in America, but disco music itself is not particularly political, or at least not directly. Inclusiveness and a vague, fuzzy sense of belonging are certainly a component of disco but for anything more meaningful than “let’s be nice” or a standard set of off-the-peg pop sentiments disco simply isn’t going to cut it. We turn, therefore, to punk and its two bastard children, new wave and post-punk. Here there’s a lot more to get one’s teeth into – politics, angst, anger and frustration are key elements of all three genres and speak to a far more socially aware and politically active audience, and crucially one coming from a working class perspective. And yet, for all the significance of punk and its off-shoots in terms of sales there’s simply no competition – disco wins hands down. Which means a lot of genuinely outstanding and important music gets pushed to the margins. Fine, we can talk about the Sex Pistols or the Clash and obviously they had big commercial success but they’re pretty much only the tip of the punk iceberg and many equally worthy bands like Stiff Little Fingers or X-Ray Spex tend to get rather lost in the shuffle. One of the things the singles charts start to suffer from in the mid-to-late 70’s is a lack of diversity. Punk is there, but it’s comparatively marginal, despite those two headline acts. The biggest selling UK single of 1977, the year of Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols, is Wings with “Mull of Kintyre” – it remains the biggest-selling non-charity single of all time and it’s not exactly a scream of dissatisfaction against the ruling classes. In 1978 it’s “Rivers Of Babylon” by Boney M (it got to Number 30 in the US, their only significant chart entry). Four of the top five biggest selling singles of 1979 – the year of London Calling – were disco, “I Will Survive”, “Pop Muzik”, “Born To Be Alive” and “Hot Stuff”. The other one is Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”, which is disco adjacent. So even at the highest moments of punk’s success they can’t come to within sniffing distance of disco, and in 1977 it gets outflanked by a bucolic Scottish ballad. That’s deeply unfortunate. This will shift a bit when we get to 1980, but 1980 is, as we shall see, a strange year for the charts in any case.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, heavy metal simply gets on with the business of being heavy metal. It’s long-lasting, extremely dedicated fandom helps metal to escape the gravity of the 70’s but many of the genre’s best works lie deep within those ten years. Black Sabbath’s debut nicely pairs with the start of the decade, released as it is in 1970. Describing the album as “dark” or “brooding” seems obvious yet it’s still true, and much of Black Sabbath encapsulates exactly what it is about the genre that’s so beloved. It’s an excellent Rosetta Stone for a genre that can seem obscure to outsiders and an easy way in. Paranoid would follow later the same year, buoyed by the success of the single of the same name which reached Number 4 in the UK singles charts and Number 61 in the US. It’s an even better album – in fact it’s arguably the best heavy metal album of the 70’s – but as with a lot of heavy metal bands, Black Sabbath had little use for the popularity contest that was the singles charts and shied away from singles releases in order to remain closer to their real fans rather than the ever-wavering attention of the average single buyer. At the other end of the decade Mötorhead’s Overkill showed that, even after ten years there was plenty of life in the genre, and the 80’s would go on to be a key period for metal bands. But in the 70’s metal, ironically, just quietly got on with being what it was, and that hard-core fan-base would keep its fortunes buoyant. Sales – obviously – weren’t at disco’s levels but heavy metal’s slight remove from the mainstream meant it was also able to survive the 70’s when other styles petered out and had to change. You could credibly release an album and call in heavy metal in 1986 – good luck if you tried the same thing and called it disco. Metal’s sales were smaller but its shelf-life considerably longer.

And that’s the thing with disco – its might can only carry on for so long. Exactly how long that is we will explore as this series continues but as the 1970’s bow out it rules over everything. That momentum, leading us into the Eighties, is beginning to falter, as post-punk, new wave and, most significantly, the New Romantic movement start to carve out a different path. And there are plenty of other genres that integrated. Disco, as we’ve already discussed, will morph and change into other forms that keep the essence of the genre but migrates into other areas. It will change to survive and integrate into other musical forms. The 1980’s will see more genres emerge, more artists who move in other directions, but the impact of the 70’s will continue to resonate. There are titans to come. It will be interesting to see just where they come from, and just how much of the past they will come to rely on.

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