According to David Hepworth, the year he turned 21 was also the year when ‘a huge proportion of the most memorable albums ever made were released’. Having been a rock journalist for four decades, he does of course know the theory that everybody thinks music was at its best when they were young. But, as he puts it with untypical — if presumably ironic — machismo, the ‘important difference in the case of me and 1971’ is that ‘I’m right’.
The strange thing is that he might well be. If the Mercury Prize had existed in 1971, Hunky Dory, Led Zeppelin IV, Imagine, Every Picture tells a Story, Who’s Next and Sticky Fingers would have been up against at least half a dozen others that, 45 years on, rock fans of any age are likely to know better than most of the recent winners.
And that’s just the albums from Britain. The same year also produced Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Neil Young’s Harvest and the record that, by Hepworth’s reckoning, ‘invented the album business’. Made in just five three-hour sessions in January 1971, Carole King’s Tapestry was released with very little fanfare. Yet, 25 million sales later, the recent news that the 74-year-old King will perform it this summer in Hyde Park was greeted with levels of grateful excitement the returning Christ might settle for.
On the whole, this is a state of affairs we now take so much for granted (Carole King? Tapestry? Who wouldn’t be excited?) that it’s easy to forget how unimaginable it would once have been — not least in 1971. Fortunately, one of the many strengths of Hepworth’s book is that it combines both perspectives: emphasising how much a part of 21st-century life these albums remain, while also reminding us that, back when they were made, what most people took for granted was pop’s lack of a shelf life. (Even greatest-hits collections were rare, and the Beach Boys would refuse to play festivals if they hadn’t got any new material.) Only in 1971 did the idea of a rock canon first begin to take shape.
As so often, the change began with Bob Dylan, who at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh performed such ancient songs as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (from six years before). Nonetheless, as Hepworth points out, even Bob couldn’t have expected that he’d still be doing it in 2016. The last chapter ends with Elvis on tour in 1971, his best work long behind him — but still leading the audience in a celebration of his own legend. It was, Hepworth ringingly declares, not a vision of rock’s past, but of its future.
Last November, Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded made a more orthodox suggestion for rock’s most significant year. The differences between his book and Hepworth’s, though, go far beyond the chronological.
Like Savage, Hepworth gives us plenty of proper social history and music criticism. He serves up several convincing theories as to why 1971 proved so special, including the fact that the history of recorded sound had reached ‘the golden moment when technology became a help and wasn’t yet a hindrance’. A modern click track, for example, would certainly have prevented Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ from speeding up the way it does — but at what cost to the overall feel?
Rather than Savage’s chin-stroking earnestness, however, the prevailing tone here is one of affectionate, at times slightly head-shaking deadpan comedy. (By 1971, Van Morrison’s wife Janet Rigsbee ‘had changed her name to Janet Planet to signify her oneness with the universe’.) And the same winning irreverence extends to Hepworth’s judgements: among them the heretical but entirely defensible ideas that What’s Going On is wildly overrated as social commentary, and that Nick Drake was a bit of an arse.
There’s an unfailingly sharp eye, too, for mischievous facts, such as Eric Clapton agreeing to play for the starving of Bangladesh only if Harrison kept him supplied with his favourite New York heroin. Mick Jagger and Bianca’s St Tropez wedding — a.k.a. ‘the shabbiest bun-fight in the history of both rock and marriage’ — is given the full set-piece treatment over several tragicomic pages that end with Jagger’s bewildered father weaving his way out through various drugged-up rock stars, and still carrying the wedding present he’d had no opportunity to hand over. ‘I hope my other son doesn’t become a superstar,’ he told a reporter feelingly as he left.
Near the beginning of this richly enjoyable book, Hepworth argues that 1971 saw the pop era giving way to rock. Even so, his own approach is much more like the best pop: never taking itself too seriously, essentially out to entertain — but also an awful lot smarter than its absence of solemnity might lead you to think.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10