1971 — The Greatest Year in Rock — Never A Dull Moment

Whoever said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture (and I still can’t work out who it actually was) clearly hadn’t read ‘1971’, a brilliant book which shows that when David Hepworth writes about music it’s like losing yourself on the dance floor to your favourite song or admiring a particularly beautiful building.

Hepworth’s thesis is simple – that 1971, for various reasons, is the greatest year in rock, the greatest not only in terms of the music that was recorded and released in that year but also in the way it marked so many significant transitions.

There may be other years that could stake a claim to the crown and there may be other writers who could make a good case for them, but, for me, Hepworth’s case seems absolutely convincing.

It’s convincing for a number of reasons. The first is the extraordinary number and quality of so many of the 1971 releases. Take a look at these: Blue by Joni Mitchell, Tapestry by Carole King, Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, Hunky Dory by David Bowie, Led Zep 4 by Led Zeppelin, and Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen.

Not bad, eh? And that’s just six of the hundred Hepworth lists as evidence that 1971 was the ‘Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album’.

The second thing that makes Hepworth’s argument so convincing is the quality of the writing. The prose is literate and intelligent ,elegantly and lightly giving form to Hepworth’s extensive knowledge and research, providing social and historical context through tellingly observed and precisely selected detail. I was particularly taken by this reflection on ‘Brown Sugar’ –

‘ (It) was the key single of 1971. I recall Saturday nights that summer turning up to shabbily furnished north London firetraps lugging a Party Seven of sticky sweet Watney’s Red, twenty Benson & Hedges and a copy of that yellow-labelled mono single with the protruding tongue on it, nights that would climax with the sound of ‘Brown Sugar’ rasping and rattling from somebody’s lovingly assembled and nervously guarded component stereo, trainee teachers thrusting their hips in each other’s direction with unmistakably carnal intent while studiously avoiding anything as telling as eye contact, cigarettes held aloft, each recapitulation of the chorus lasciviously lip-synced, temporarily transported to the Dionysian state of peak horn which the Stones achieved more than anyone else, the rented room gravid with lust and throbbing with abandon.’

Hepworth’s judgements are equally convincing. Here he is, for example, on The Stones –  ‘Very little has happened with the Stones since that summer that is all that interesting musically. if you went to see them today and their repertoire didn’t go beyond 1972 you’d still feel you’d got The Stones. Since that time the main interest has been in them as a brand, a soap opera, a sitcom, a group of wealthy men fighting the depredations of age, an international attraction…’

So much of the book’s thesis comes back to that sentiment, reinforcing as it does the idea that 1971 serves as some kind of pivotal peak in rock history,a time after which nothing was ever quite the same again and a time to which we return as some kind of musical high water-mark. Socially and culturally, 1971 seems a hundred thousand light years away, but in musical terms it can seem like yesterday or even, more alarmingly, like today. As Hepworth observes of his own children – ‘If any of my children were to be cast away in the year 1971 they would be lost. They wouldn’t be able to calculate in pounds, shillings and pence and would be frightened by the fact there were no seat belts in cars and you could smoke on London Underground, surprised that the only people who could afford to travel between continents were millionaires, and taken aback that there were just three channels on the TV, no such thing as a personal computer and no openly gay public figures. However, they would feel entirely at home with the records that were made that year.’

The third reason why I find Hepworth’s argument totally convincing is personal. David Hepworth was 21 n 1971. I was 13. His experience of that year would have been significantly different, and significantly more adult, than mine, but that’s not to say that my musical experience of that year is any less powerful than his. This is because 1971 was the year in which I bought my first albums, both of which feature in the top 100 — Who’s Next by The Who and The Faces by The Faces.

David Hepworth’s book is a fantastic read. If you were listening to records in 1971 it will bring you back to that time. The beauty of the book, though, and a tribute to both the quality of the writing and the strength of Hepworth’s argument, is that it will bring you back to that time even if you weren’t.