Every generation has a soft spot for the decade in which it came of age. For rock and roll fans, however, it’s hard to argue that any decade surpassed the ‘70s, on a number of fronts. Post-Beatles and pre-MTV, the ‘70s occupied a sweet spot where rock and roll was played out on wide-open terrain, and on a field where “genre” had yet to become a catch-word. Below are 10 other factors that made that decade rock and roll’s best.
Riffs, Riffs, and more Riffs
“Walk this Way,” “Black Dog,” “Iron Man,” “Smoke on the Water” … the list goes on and on. So ubiquitous were great guitar riffs in the ‘70s, it sometimes seemed bands were drawing from a bottomless bucket of memorable six-string figures. It’s hardly surprising that, to this day, aspiring guitar players often look first to the ‘70s for riff-oriented material that’s relatively easy to cover.
Tune to any rock station in the ‘70s, and in the span of a half-hour you might hear artists as diverse as The Raspberries, Al Green, and Conway Twitty. Contrast that with today, when radio is rigidly segmented and disc jockeys have about as much discretion as someone who’s incarcerated. Moreover, the era of the glorious one-hit wonder – Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride,” Shocking Blue’s “Venus – is long past.
Sure, rock and roll originated in the South, but in the ‘70s legions of groups emerged who gave “southern rock” its own distinctive flavor. With The Allman Brothers Band leading the charge, groups such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie offered up a feast of deep-fried guitar-rock steeped in country and blues. So powerful was southern rock as a communal force, it helped elected a president, thanks to rallies staged by The Allman Brothers for then-candidate Jimmy Carter.
Great Album Cover Art
From Roger Dean’s fabulous Yes covers to H.R. Giger’s ambitious packaging of ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery to Storm Thorgerson’s elegant work for Pink Floyd, album-cover art and packaging reached a zenith in the ‘70s. Today’s rockers often speak of the lost thrill of tearing the shrink-wrap from an LP, and then musing over the elaborate packaging while listening to a treasured new disc. Notwithstanding the resurrection of vinyl, online access to music has, for the most part, deprived today’s listeners of that experience.
By 1976, rock and roll was showing signs of becoming stodgy, “disco-fied,” and (thanks to prog bands) somewhat elitist. Punk rock changed all that. Taking their cues from The Stooges and The Ramones, bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash reminded us that rock’s visceral energy had less to do with virtuosity than with amped-up barre chords and a snarling spirit. From the sidelines, even old-school rockers like Neil Young cheered the punks on.
Artist-Friendly Record Labels
It was common practice, in the ‘70s, for record companies to simply allot a budget to a band, and then turn them loose in the studio to make whatever type of album they wanted to make. Furthermore, artists such as Alice Cooper, Sly and The Family Stone, and Peter Frampton were nurtured along until commercial success came their way. Such freedom and nurturing would be unthinkable today.
John Lennon famously described glam rock as simply “rock and roll with lipstick on.” Mascara and rouge notwithstanding, the genre yielded music that shines with a glittery resonance to this day. Powered by the likes of Mick Ronson, Phil Manzanera, and, in the case of T.Rex, Marc Bolan himself, the best of glam rock packed an incendiary wallop. Even The Rolling Stones, for a time, couldn’t resist jumping on board.
MTV Didn’t Exist
Video may not have killed the radio star, but it certainly sapped the mystique from rock and roll. Prior to the advent of MTV, rock fans looked to music publications and weekly installments of The Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert to keep tabs on (and see) their favorite artists. Today’s media saturation brings artists and fans together as never before, but at the expense of the sublime kick that rarer access provided.
Who would have imagined, when they unleashed their debut album in early 1969, that Led Zeppelin would become the preeminent band of the ‘70s? Over the course of ten studio albums, Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham crafted a body of work that rivals that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in terms of far-reaching impact. Reflecting a purity of spirit that was in some ways unique to their decade, Led Zeppelin rightly called it quits when their beloved Bonzo died in 1980.
Exile on Main Street
Everyone makes a big deal out of The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s, and rightly so. But no album matches The Rolling Stones’s two-disc masterpiece in terms of assimilating rock and roll’s primal ingredients. From fiery country-blues to sizzling barnhouse stomps to searing gospel and beyond, Exile has it all. If rock and roll can be said to have a bible, it’s this album.