Rock 'n' roll was never supposed to look back.
It was momentary music, meant to die as the notes faded away. It was noise produced by kids learning their instruments, inspiring amateurs with more heart than technique. Some of the best of it evaporated away after being apprehended by only the lucky few who happened to be in the garage that afternoon when the guitar player missed one note and struck another and it rang weirdly with something the bass player was trying. It hung there in the reverb for a second then was gone forever.
If you could wrangle it, the recording technology that came of age about the time that it got going made it possible to capture discrete moments, spontaneous accidents and instants of ecstatic overdrive. Maybe nobody thought about it then, but it empowered ghosts.
No one stops these days to think if it is healthy to listen to the voices of the dead, and some who grew up on rock 'n' roll have become as reactionary and snobbish as the squares they mocked when they were young and vital. They are no less likely to mutter "that ain't music" when confronted by the likes of Billie Eilish or Lil Nas X as their granddads were to wonder why the Beatles couldn't afford haircuts. Same as it ever was.
So the irony of looking back across 50 years and asking if 1971 wasn't the best year ever for rock music isn't lost; your answer to the question depends far more on when you came of age and what you listened to than any quantifiable values.
There are lots of years that might be nominated; you could go back to the Big Bang of 1956, when Elvis Presley appeared on Milton Berle's and Ed Sullivan's TV shows, or 1967, with its Summer of Love and "Sgt. Pepper," or 1991, when grunge broke through to the mainstream, Guns N' Roses sold 30 million albums, and A Tribe Called Quest released "Low End Theory."
Every year since 1951, when Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston recorded "Rocket 88," might benefit from a book-length assessment of its contribution to rock music. There have been at least a few of these already produced — British writer Andrew Wright Jackson has written books advocating for the importance of the years 1965 and 1973, and Little Rock native Andrew Griffin published "Rock Catapult 1966: The Launch of Modern Rock & Roll" in 2018.
A year earlier British journalist David Hepworth — 21 years old in 1971 — published "Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded," a book that made a fair (and gleefully subjective) case that 1971 was the best ever.
Maybe so. At the very least 1971 is still very much with us, thanks to the sullen persistence of my generation and the classic rock format; I doubt a day goes by when I don't encounter at least a snippet of a song from 1971.
In 1971, I could not have imagined anyone listening to anything recorded 50 years earlier (though a few people certainly did). A lot of the music recorded in 1971 can now be considered timeless, while it's difficult to listen to anything recorded in 1921 without being conscious of the antiquity of the recording. (For instance, listen to Paul Whiteman's "Wang Wang Blues," which was 1921's top hit, holding on to the No. 1 spot in the Billboard charts for six weeks. It holds up pretty well, but you can't hear it without thinking of it as old-timey music.)
And in 1971 I didn't think I'd be listening to, much less writing about, that year's top hits 50 years hence. In 1971, pop careers were still seen as provisional; most artists hustled to put out two albums a year because most record companies thought pop and rock acts had a three- or four-year window in which they could commercially viable.
The eight years the Beatles — who broke up in April 1970 and legally ceased to exist at midnight on Dec. 31 of that year — had enjoyed was seen as an aberration.
They were after all the Beatles, and there was no guarantee that the four individual members — who had all released solo records in 1970 that commented to some extent on the dissolution of the group — would go on making hits.
If you're trying to judge the quality of a year's music, one of the least reliable ways to start is by looking at whatever won the Grammy as that year's song of the year. In 1971, that was Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," recorded by both King (who included it on her breakthrough album "Tapestry," the year's biggest-selling album) and James Taylor, whose recording won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
In January 1971, Taylor was recording his "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon" album, which would be released in April, at Crystal Sound Studios in Hollywood. At the same time King, who was playing piano on Taylor's sessions, was starting to record her second album for producer Lou Adler's Ode records (the first one, 1970's "Writer," is an overlooked gem).
King was recording at A&M Records, a few blocks away from where Taylor was recording in the a studio next door to the one in which Joni Mitchell was recording "Blue." (In the larger studio next door to that one, Karen and Richard Carpenter were making their third album, "Carpenters.")
Well established as a songwriter, having written hits like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up On the Roof," and dozens of others with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin, King was a shy performer, whose onstage experience was limited to a brief stint in a band called The City and playing piano in Taylor's touring band. ("You've Got a Friend" was conceived as an answer to Taylor's plaintive line in "Fire and Rain," where he sang: "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.")
But Adler was enamored of her voice, an earthy, grainy instrument that made up for a lack of polish with its capacity for carrying an emotive charge.
Both recordings of the song share several musicians. Danny Kortchmar, King's bandmate in The City, played guitar and congas on both versions, and Mitchell sang backup on both versions (Taylor joined her on King's version).
The key of King's version is a half-step lower than Taylor's — hers is in A flat major, his is in A — but that might be more the result of relative tuning and variations in tape speed than any conscious decision on the part of the artists.
But the finished records are very different; on King's you can feel her singing just over the top of her piano — they sneaked into Mitchell's studio early in the morning to record on the better Steinway — with the bongos giving way to violins, while Taylor's jazzier version is driven by his distinctive finger-picked guitar style.
King never released her version as a single (Taylor's version went to No. 1). The song was never a hit, but"Tapestry" spent 15 weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and 302 weeks on the Billboard charts, making it the longest-charting album by any female solo artist. By the time Taylor's version of her song reached No. 1, her album had been at the top for six weeks.
"Tapestry" was one of the best-selling albums of all time; Mitchell's "Blue" might be the best singer-songwriter album of all time. While Mitchell's musical sensibilities grew more catholic, she never wrote lyrics better than "Case of You," "Carey," "California" and "All I Want."
And that Carpenters record contained the hits "For All We Know," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and their version of Leon Russell's "Superstar."
When David Bowie came to the U.S. for the first time in January 1971 he was 24 years old, and in danger of being remembered as a one-hit wonder (for 1969's "Space Oddity," which would be re-released in 1973).
He came to promote his album "The Man Who Sold the World," which was being distributed in the U.S. by Mercury Records, but he couldn't perform in the States because he'd failed to obtain a work permit from the American Federation of Musicians.
Bowie's deal with Mercury was expiring, and the trip was seen as his last chance to gain traction in the States.
Mercury didn't have the budget to pay for Bowie's wife, Angie, to accompany him, or even for the artist to stay in a hotel, so as he traveled across the country by bus, making stops in New York, Detroit, Texas, Minneapolis and finally Los Angeles, he stayed with fans and various people connected to the record business.
When he reached L.A., he was put up in a house formerly owned by silent movie star Lillian Gish, where RCA record executive Tom Ayres lived. Ayres, a Louisiana native, was a colorful character who had been the bass player in Johnny Burnette Quintet after mustering out of the Army after the Korean War.
He'd worked as a independent record producer before taking a job with RCA, and when Bowie came to visit he was busy trying to resurrect the career of old rockabilly star Gene Vincent, who was recording in the Gish mansion.
Ayres and his friend, influential L.A. disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, showed Bowie, who at the time wore a dress and favored a Veronica Lake-inspired flowing hairstyle, around town and arranged for him to play a few private parties in the Hollywood Hills. Bowie wrote "Hang On to Yourself" with Vincent in mind. (Vincent died in October 1971 before he had a chance to record the song.)
Ayres introduced Bowie to Bingenheimer, who played a tape of Bowie performing on acoustic guitar at a Hollywood party on his radio show. Ayres convinced RCA to sign Bowie — promising them he would be "the Elvis of the '70s." Bowie went back to the U.K. and recorded his fourth album "Hunky Dory," released in December.
"Hunky Dory" is in retrospect, considered an important part of Bowie's oeuvre; it featured several songs written during Bowie's sojourn to the U.S.. But RCA was reluctant to support the album because Bowie had already indicated he was determined to take his career in a more theatrical direction. He had a character in mind, one based partially on the doomed Gene Vincent. "Ziggy Stardust" was born in Los Angeles in February 1971.
Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, the one usually referred to as "Led Zeppelin IV" or "ZoSo," was released in 1971, containing the classic rock staples "Stairway to Heaven," "Rock and Roll," "Black Dog," "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Going to California."
John Lennon moved to New York and released "Imagine." T-Rex released "Electric Warrior" with the seminal glam rocker "Bang a Gong (Get It On)."
The Who released "Who's Next" with "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," and "Baba O'Riley." Elton John released three albums, the soundtrack to the movie "Friends," the sensational live album "17-11-70," and "Madman Across the Water," which included "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon."
The Rolling Stones released "Sticky Fingers" with "Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses" and "Dead Flowers." Paul and Linda McCartney released "Ram." Todd Rundgren released "Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren."
Then there's Rod Stewart's remarkable output, which included the Faces' second and third albums ("Long Player and "A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse," respectively), and his own albums "Every Picture Tells a Story" and "Never a Dull Moment," which Hepworth borrowed for his title.
Nobody knew it at the time, but Nick Drake released "Bryter Later" in March 1971, the same month that Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" and Leonard Cohen's "Songs of Love and Hate" came out. Black Oak Arkansas also released its debut album that month. Johnny Cash, who was descending a bit from his late '60 peak, came out with "Man in Black." The Kinks released "Muswell Hillbillies." Sly & The Family Stone released "There's a Riot Goin' On."
Don McLean released "American Pie" in October. "Aretha Live at Fillmore West" came out. So did the Allman Brothers' "At Fillmore East." Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain." Joan Baez's "Blessed Are ..." Isaac Hayes put out "Shaft" and "Black Moses." Dolly Parton's superb "Coat of Many Colors" was issued.
1971 is often cited as one of Bob Dylan's "lost years," but he managed to record some new material — notably a couple of songs about his loss of inspiration ("When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "Watching the River Flow" for "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II)."
I'm leaving a lot out. I have to. Some studies have shown that most people tend to have settled their musical tastes by their mid-20s. Most of us tend to associate the music of our early adulthood with the signal events of those days — first dates, first romances, first apartments, first steps into the wider world.
For baby boomers, it is possible that a great deal of the appeal of classic rock is nostalgia — a whimsical longing for the imagined happier times of one's youth. Much of the audience for classic rock music is baby boomers. They make up the largest identifiable age group in the population, and this generation's buying power is still great enough to ensure that their rock is "classic."
So 1971 is still with us, in our coffee shops and on our radio, in our playlists and our television commercials. It might not have been the best year, but it might have been, as the advertisers say, the stickiest.
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