Was 1971 really the best ever year for music?

The claim has been made for other years — but David Hepworth’s argument in Never a Dull Moment actually seems rather convincing

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — Rock’s Golden Year David Hepworth

Bantam, pp.384, £20, ISBN: 9780593074862

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Ade

    One from the Library, methinks… if we’ve still got a library?

  • Ade

    Mmm… Gabrielle Drake…

    • Binkey.

      OK….bit left field as she was an actress not a singer like her brother but…I’ll raise you… Sandy Denny.

      • CRSM

        Melanie Safka was still interesting and attractive back in those days.

        • Binkey.

          Right, if we’re concentrating on looks…Sonja Kristina. And she was a damn good singer too.

          • CRSM

            I wasn’t particularly thinking of looks, though she was cute.
            In terms of under-rated female British folky singers, who else remembers Celia Humphris of the rather odd band “Trees”? Possibly remembered for “The Garden of Jane Delawny”.

          • Binkey.

            Yes. Spot on. Generally however in my opinion always sang a little too high. Sounded too fragile, though Trees are in my ‘chick-fronted’ fave bands. Now, let’s get serious. Jacqui McShee. Sat mysterious and Madonna-like between Mr Jansch and Mr Renbourne (peace be upon those two gentlemen-I hope they have gone back to their Valhalla of the Troubadour and Les Cousins). An underrated voice.

          • CRSM

            Apologies if this appears twice as for some reason it has been placed in quarantine. Possibly because of the phrase “kicked against the Pr**ks”. what a bizarre organ The Spectator is!

            I saw Pentangle live twice, but always thought they seemed a bit remote from their audience. Mind you, I was never one for the jazz side of their work, so perhaps that didn’t help.

            I can understand why I think that era was the high water mark for popular music as I was having a miserable 3 years at university between 1970 and 1973, and these are formative years.

            I’m sure many others of that generation saw a steep downhill slide in what followed: the embarrassment of “Glam Rock”, the sheer thuggishness of “Punk Rock” and the nihilism of “New Romantics”. (At least Kate Bush kicked against the pr1cks).

            I thought the creative force had moved across the Atlantic, producing bands such as 10,000 Maniacs, The Cowboy Junkies and later on, the October Project. Mind you the Scandinavian folk-rock scene became interesting with bands like “Garmarna” setting a high standard.

            Even today, a lot of northern European musicians, many almost unknown in the UK, are worth seeking out. The extremely talented, if somewhat chameleon like “Eivor Palsdottir”, a singer and songwriter from the Faeroe Islands is worthy of a mention.

          • Jambo25

            I agree about Pentangle. Saw them at a university do. Great band, musically but no stage presence. Folk Rock was and is one of those musical movements which was, for a while, seen as very uncool, yet it produced some very good and popular (At the time.) musicians, bands and recordings. It probably started in the UK with The Incredible String Band and went on through Fairport Convention and off shoots, Steeleye Span, Hedgehog Pie, Mr Fox, Pentangle and I suppose Lindisfarne. There were a number of very good Scottish and Irish bands of this type which never proved particularly popular down south. The material probably wasn’t ‘English’ enough. Horslips, The JSD Band and 5 Hand Reel come into this category.

          • Jambo25

            Saw Curved Air as well. Came for the breasts. Stayed for the songs and the great vocal performance. A very dear friend of mine once made me up a cd of his favourite tracks and died not too long afterwards. When I want to remember him I often put it on and the first track on that compilation is ‘It Happened Today’ with Ms Kristina on lead vocals. I suppose that’s part of the power of music.

          • AdrianM

            Multi-colour vinyl… a stunner in every way.

          • Jambo25


        • Binkey.

          Mind you Sandy Denny scrubbed up nicely too, if theatrical, chain smoking, occasionally hysterical coke-sniffing see-saw fatties are your thing. But she did have a voice that made you weep in joy at the beauty of it.

      • Jambo25

        Saw her a couple of times with the Fairports. One of my pals was a very big Fairports fan. A very good band with some excellent musicians as members . Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Ian Matthews as well as Sandy Denny. ‘Who knows where the time goes’ and Richard Thompson’s ‘Meet on the Ledge’ are 2 of the great post war British songs.

  • davidshort10

    David helped make his own piece of pop history with his successful editing and managing of Smash Hits, although it was Nick Logan who created it. No one could have predicted its sales levels. Without it, the owners Emap would probably not have survived (it eventually did not….) and if David had had a piece of the action, he’d be living in St Tropez.

  • tagalog

    It may well be that 1971 is a high-water mark for pop music, but as someone here in the States recently said to me when I was holding forth on the greatness of the music of those days, “it’s music from a bygone era, no one really remembers it.” I’ve been a little haunted by that remark ever since.

    • Christian Thomas

      I would be too. 🙂

  • nonuser

    I’d add Van’s ‘Tupelo Honey’ to the list of great albums. And the Doors’ ‘L.A. Woman’, Elton’s ‘Madman Across the Water’, Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl’, the Moody Blues’ ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’, Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, Melanie’s ‘The Good Book’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’, The Faces’ ‘A Nod’s as Good as a Wink …’, John Denver’s ‘Poems, Prayers and Promises’, America’s ‘America’, Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’, and The Who’s ‘Who’s Next’. What a year!

  • ossettian

    The Yes Album and Fragile.

    White Light.

    • Copyright101

      I suppose you’re now officially a DT exile mate. I was unpersoned there some time ago! Why not drop in on us here:

      Many of us are DT exiles.

      • Jambo25

        What’s with the Telegraph? The new format seems to have dropped all BTL comments entirely.

        • Copyright101

          It’s true, no more Disqus at the DT (although the old threads can still be seen within Disqus itself) I assume it’s because too many of the wrong opinions were being expressed and exposing most of the hacks as the propaganda mouthpieces they undoubtedly are.

          The DT’s problem will be that with Disqus gone their traffic will begin to decline, fewer eyeballs, fewer people linking to articles. Currently, according to Alexa, the DT site is ranked at @300 in global traffic terms. Whereas The Times, cowering behind it’s paywall, is ranked at a useless 8,000. Does The Times have comments? No idea. Because I never go there, never link to it, never see it linked to or quoted. It may as well not exist online. The DT probably won’t quite sink that far but without comments it will start heading down the rankings.

          As I like to say, it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save the village.

          • Jambo25

            Thanks. I wondered what was going on. I’ll miss the Rugby argy bargy but not much else. I think I’ll let my on-line subscription slide.

          • Copyright101

            I suspect you won’t be the only one.

    • AdrianM

      Brilliant, they’re on my ipod.

  • KellerCC

    The best ever year in rock was definitely between 1968 and 1973. My personal favourite was always ’69: Abbey Road, Let it Bleed, The Band, Clouds, Tommy, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Led Zeppelin 2, and so on and so on

  • Christian Thomas

    Pity we can’t crowbar in Layla and other assorted Love Songs to strengthen his case, which came out in 1970. But it would have been on every playlist and record player.

  • I wasn’t there but I don’t think Dylan played Like A Rolling Stone at the Bangladesh concert…

  • Jambo25

    I think the thing is that there was a ‘great’ period of popular music from about the early/mid 60s through to about the early/mid 70s. People can argue about individual years: I’ve seen 67 punted as the best ever but there just happened to be a lot of very, very good music around. It wasn’t just rock but a whole series of genres. Rock, pop, folk rock, folk, soul, MOR etc. You had everything from ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark (1964/5) to ‘What’s Goin On’ by Marvin Gaye (1971). There’s been periods of very good music being released since then but never in such quantity or quality.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Well, yes, but it’s wholly subjective: there was great pop in the ’50s to early ’60s too (doo-wop, Everly Bros, etc etc) and some very good stuff in the ’80s – I mean, think of the Cocteaus… There’s lots of good stuff around currently and although I can’t name bands the way I used to, I like lots of house/lounge/ambient (etc) stuff from the ’90s into the noughties. In the last couple of days I’ve been lightening the load of some tedious mucky chores by means of headphones, listening to Dusty Springfield, M.Gaye, Cocteaus, Boz Scaggs, Shostakovitch, Charlie Parker, plus assorted lounge/house stuff for which I don’t even know the artists responsible.

      • Jambo25

        Its bound to be subjective. However, I suspect that many people would think, like me, that there was a high point at somne point in the 60s to 70s. There was good music prior to that period but probably less than you think. We tend to celebrate the 50s and very early 60s because of the start up of rock n’ roll and there was some great music made from people like Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley et al but there was also a lot of rubbish churned out as well. Similarly, we have had good music since but I doubt it has ever matched the quality and quantity of certain periods during the 60s and 70s. There was garbage produced then but also far more really high quality music.

        • Malcolm Stevas

          Well, I largely agree, except that I’m really not sure the mid-60s to early ’70s was quite the bees’ knees you suggest. Was there any less rubbish produced in that period than during the late 50s-early 60s? I mean, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Bubblegum pop, Slade, The Sweet, Mud…? Embarassing memories… OTOH the names you mention – especially Little Richard – were top notch performers, powerful and professional and deeply memorable.
          Look, my teens were in the ’60s and such acts as Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa ( I saw Zappa & The Mothers live) are part of my youth, but since those days my musical horizons have expanded and I love lots of stuff from earlier periods – and still listen to current music too. Know what I’d like most to travel in time to see? Louis Armstrong in the ’30s, 1940s big-bands, and Charlie Parker…

  • WFC

    American Pie.

  • Mr__Neutron

    “The last chapter ends with Elvis on tour in 1971, his best work long behind him.”

    Not true. Elvis’s Comeback Special, ranked as his greatest performance, was in 1968. His “From Elvis in Memphis” LP, regarded as one of his very best albums, was released in 1969. The same year also marked his return to live performing, and the concerts from 1969-70 are excellent–his decay didn’t set in until 1971. And even afterward Elvis still cut exciting records, such as “Burning Love” and “Hurt.”