Vive Le Rock!
Despite its image as an innovative decade, the 1970’s were a retrospective drag
Throughout my time as a music fan, a curiosity about the past has been a constant driver and – it must be admitted – an occasional thorn in the side to finding fresh sonic experiences. Even in the early to mid-1970s, a period recognised by rock critics as one of the most creative and ground-breaking – think of the era’s emerging artists Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Kraftwerk or Roxy Music – you simply could not escape the references to rock’s most primal roots of 15 years earlier.
In 1973, the year that I bought my first ever single, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie both released retrospective covers albums. Ferry coolly evoked the Tin Pan Alley-era with These Foolish Things while Bowie’s Pin-Ups revisited his Marquee mod nights of the mid-1960’s. Meanwhile in the more frenetic singles charts, things were hardly what you’d call visionary. Mud, the group signed by Mickie Most’s RAK label who earlier in their career had attempted to jump onto the flower power bandwagon, scored hits with the lumpen Elvis Presley pastiche Lonely This Christmas and the Buddy Holly classic Oh Boy.
Dressed in outrageous Teddy Boy garb and mixing choreographed dance moves to a trademark glam stomp, the south London quartet met their match in Leicester-based New Faces winners Showaddywaddy who around this time scored Top Ten hits with reworkings of Eddie Cochrane’s Three Steps To Heaven and Under The Moon Of Love, a 1961 hit for Curtis Lee. Perhaps spotting a gap in the market for a slightly glam-ier version of the pre-beat era crooner, Alvin Stardust got to Number One in 1974 with Jealous Mind. His real name Bernard Jewry, Stardust had already tasted fame as Shane Fenton with the famous Larry Parnes management stable of the early 1960’s which also included Billy Fury, Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde. Now sporting huge mutton-chopped sideburns and armed with a convincing Buddy Holly falsetto, the 32-year-old singer was now re-igniting the spirit of Elvis’s 1968 Las Vegas comeback in black leather catsuit and spook glove. A similar career trajectory could be applied also to Gary Glitter (née Paul Gadd), the now convicted serial paedophile who under the name Paul Raven jumped on practically every bandwagon going
before finding fame in the glam years. To anyone who had been fortunate enough to witness the rise of beat groups, psychedelia, soul, acid blues and prog rock, the sudden re-instatement of stylised, Svengali-led acts, some of whom were now well into middle age, must have been depressing to say the least. Who could have imagined that that pop would come full circle in just over a decade? The fact of the matter was that the more visceral country/blues hybrid pioneered by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and other stars had, despite the arrival of gatefold concept albums and stadium tours, never actually gone away. The sight of legions of die-hard devotees marching into Wembley Stadium in August 1972 to see their heroes in the flesh was proof there was life in rock and roll yet. Just remember that the event’s headliners Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were, back then, half the age that the Rolling Stones are today. Even the King himself, well past his best and holed up largely in Graceland, would release the timeless Burning Love in the very same year.
Wearing ‘Ton Up Boy’ biker jackets or trademark velvet collared drapes and brothel creepers and escorted by a few Teddy Girls in the rare blue jeans eulogised by Gene Vincent, these consumer outliers came to worship American stars such as Bill Haley alongside a few throwbacks to Britain’s burgeoning rock years: Billy Fury, Heinz from the Tornados (with a youthful Wilko Johnson on guitar) and ‘shock rock’ concert opener Screaming Lord Sutch. Not for this crowd the baroque musical indulgence of Jethro Tull or Emerson Lake & Palmer.
Incidentally, selling a few of his now highly collectable Vive Le Rock! t-shirts at the venue’s entrance, which were otherwise available from his Let It Rock Kings Road boutique, was Malcom McLaren. Always the Pied Piper of disaffected youth, McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood were busy putting together a rebellious look based on the Teddy Boy fashions they had seen growing up that would, just a few years later, morph into the establishment-baiting punk. But perhaps even more indicative of the uncertain cultural identity of 1973 was the release of the film American Graffiti by the young director George Lucas set in the small-town California of his teenage years. This cinematic slow burner, which was still being screened in fleapit picture houses in the 1980’s, introduced a new generation to artists such as Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and The Platters. In the US, television execs were all too quick to respond to the mood music with Happy Days, a wholesome sit com set in an idealised 1950’s suburb which ran from 1974 to 1984. Was this unhealthy backward glancing simply a response to the deeper social, cultural and political malaise of the early 1970’s with its Watergate scandal, OPEC oil embargo and soaring inflation as experienced in most Western democracies?
In Britain, where the government imposed a three-day week in response to the energy crisis, we were slightly ahead of the game with the cinematic release of That’ll Be The Day. This low budget coming-of-age movie cost under £300,000 and was set in a rough and tumble holiday camp and travelling funfair. Filming took place on the Isle of Wight, which back in the 1970’s would have perfectly passed for southern England in the days of rationing and social deference.
The idea for a gritty, home-spun rock and roll movie was hatched by David Puttnam (he later went on to make Local Hero and The Killing Fields) and Fleet Street hack Ray Connolly. Both were grammar schoolboys who grew up during the immediate post-war period and wanted to make a hard-hitting film that referenced both East of Eden and 400 Blows. “There was nothing like it at the time,” commented Connolly whose book was recently serialised on BBC Radio 4. Puttnam and his team were lucky enough to be able to enlist ex-Beatle Ringo Starr (Mike) and tousle-haired Godspell stage heart-throb David Essex (Jim Maclaine) into the lead roles and with its original American rock and roll soundtrack featuring The Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, they soon had a hit on their hands. Indeed, That’ll Be The Day proved to be such an unexpected box office success that a sequel Stardust was released in 1974 charting the rise and fall of Jim Maclaine (played by the then real pop star Essex) as he blundered his way through the hedonistic rock scene of the 1960's. When rating movies about British youth culture, critics often cite classics such as Quadrophenia, Jubilee, Trainspotting or Young Soul Rebels. None of these would have been possible without the litmus test of That’ll Be The Day. And so the point of this somewhat revisionist take on the 1970’s? Despite often claiming to clearly express the ideas and aspirations of the young, pop music has always been a deeply retrospective business. And if my own musical taste at this most formative year of 1973 lacked a little forward thinking, then I could hardly be blamed!
Extract from You Really Got A Hold On Me, the new music memoir out soon.