Sucking in the ‘70s (Music, Magic & History, Part VII)

It was as if Morrison had foreseen the Manson-esque destruction of the hippie idyll, confronting the dysfunction of hippie kids initially liberated by sex, drugs and music but now disoriented, frightened, and potentially dangerous.

– Barney Hoskyns, from the liner notes for the 2007 expanded CD edition of the Doors album Strange Days


(As with the ’70s themselves, folks often forget how dark this movie really was.) 


Magic has a price. And as the late ‘60s slide into the early ‘70s, the musical bill comes due. By the time President Nixon resigns and the last U.S. helicopters flee Saigon, the world is sick and America is tired. Between the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the round-robin firestorm in the Middle East, bloody juntas in Africa and South America, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the horrific “killing fields” of Southeast Asia, it seems as though everything fought for in World War II has been lost. Echoes of the previous decade’s musical rebellion are captured under glass and plastic. With its most brilliant artists bankrupt, drugged-out, ego-tripping or dead, the music industry turns up the volume but turns down the fire.

Let’s be real: the music industry has always been an art-gobbling profit-machine. Even in the golden age of the previous decade, money men were gate-keepers, star-fuckers, drug-dealers and all-round parasites. Throughout the 1960s, however, a large portion of the industry had been swept along by the sheer momentum of creativity, enthusiasm and profit; by the early ‘70s, however, a shrewd new generation of executives, promoters and producers has learned the newest dance steps, and they proceed to take the lead.

On the positive side, this savvy generation refines the sloppy excesses of ‘60s music into elegantly controlled chaos. They bring greater sophistication to recording techniques and finer technology to the studio. They book larger halls for bigger shows, manage trickier logistics, employ greater resources, and make – for certain people – a hell of a lot more money. Vast staffs of skilled professionals largely replace the sketchy breed of rock-show entrepreneurs. Private planes replace rickety buses. Top-shelf studios replace cramped rooms filled with gear and stoned musicians. Packed arenas replace muddy farmlands. On several levels, the music improves over the stoned improvisations of the previous decade. In the process, though, rebellion becomes profession,and ‘60s promises become ‘70s contractual obligations.


(“What song is it you wanna hear?“)

Once rock becomes “establishment music,” then a fierce ever-present divide widens to Grand Canyon proportions: On one end, the populist, working-class, testosterone fist-pump cock-rawk epitomized by Ted Nugent; on the other, the artistic, intellectually subversive challenge-rock embodied by Patti Smith. Rock remains big enough for both extremes, with plenty of artists falling between them, often in unexpected ways. (Quintessential rednecks Lynard Skynard, for example, moonlight as a jazz band.) Still, this divide will shape rock’s future, fueling a fight that continues into the next millennium.

Music also becomes increasingly classified and compartmentalized during the ‘70s, boxing the wild creativity of the previous decade into a collection of rigid formats and categories. While a late-‘60s listener might hear the Beatles, the Supremes, Simon & Garfunkel and the MC-5 on the same radio station, that same listener would be hard-pressed to find such diversity a decade later. In the cruelest irony of all, the music originated by Black artists for Black audiences gets commandeered by white artists and executives. With Hendrix dead and Chuck Berry in decline, rock-n-roll appears to be White Man’s Land. By the late ‘70s, people think of soul or disco, not rock, as the proper venues for Black artists and fans.

A musical underground remains strong through the decade, though often shunned by both the major record labels and the AM frequency radio stations. Led Zeppelin pisses in the industry’s face, yet still attains godlike success and fame. A ferocious rock press – epitomized by Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Legs McNeil and Hunter S. Thompson – retains the brawling spirit of the music. Soul artists like Isaac Hayes and street poets like Lou Reed slip raw sexuality into the American Top 40, while ragged idealists like Patti Smith kick over trashcans looking for gold. Satanic Coven even manages to score a radio hit with their anti-hypocrisy anthem “One Tin Solder,” sharing the airwaves with a singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, and her hit “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Seventies music does have its charms. The sleek beat of funk, and its smooth sister soul, blend carnal pleasures with seductive gloss. Virtuosos like Rush, Yes, Funkadelic, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Sun Ra’s Cosmic Arkestra expand musical horizons to unclassifiable yet absurdly inspirational extents. The romantic bombast of Queen, Boston and other arena-rockers offers superficial majesty, while soon-to-be-hated disco makes its subversive debut in subterranean clubs where ethnic, cultural and sexual identities blur beyond recognition.

In the mainstream, however, the righteous furies of rock, folk and R&B get bridled into radio-friendly form. Smooth crooners like Harry Chapin and Carole King set a warmer tone. Cranky vets like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones discard their Dionysian aspects. Little Stevie Wonder comes of age, Michael Jackson picks up where he left off, and former Beatles grow Wings and admit that All Things Must Pass. Although certain artists – like rambling blues-rockers Fleetwood Mac, slick jazz-rockers Chicago, the Southern-rocking Allman Brothers and the reality-rocking Pink Floyd – bring a certain type of flair to the airwaves, rock spends most of the decade caught between a sedated mainstream and an abyssal underground.


(Blows Against the Empire, the odd debut by Paul Kantner’s Jefferson Starship. “We built this city,” my ass!)

Thick currents of supernaturalism and science fiction run through this decade’s music too. Visual artists like Chris Foss, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo – best known for genre book- and magazine-covers – dominate the vivid album covers of this era. Those album covers become graphic talismans of mystery and imagination. From the starships of Boston, ELO, and the transformed Jefferson Starship, to the ominous occultism of Zeppelin, Sabbath, Uriah Heep and other bands, album covers and musical themes conjure up a luminal otherworld. Earth, Wind and Fire invoke the elements in their name alone, and back up that invocation with mystic Egyptian symbology. SF fans like Brian May and Boosty Collins weave spacey undercurrents into their music, while horror fans like Gene Simmons and Geezer Butler use lurid imagery as their calling-cards. Serious occultists (Jimmy Page) metaphysicians (Neal Peart), satirists (Frank Zappa), futurists (Paul Kantner), tongue-in-cheek nostalgianistas (Ian Anderson), and practitioners of alternative spiritual paths (Stevie Nicks) all work their unconventional views into the music they create. Certain albums, like the classic fourth offering from Led Zeppelin, contain undeniable metaphysical elements. Such impressions are often half-serious at best – witness the barbaric pulp of Molly Hatchet, the stomping demonism of KISS’ Destroyer, and the uncanny bad timing of AC-DC’s Highway to Hell. Some folks, however, know exactly what they’re doing… and, as Erik Davis points out in his book about Led Zeppelin IV, they’re totally serious about their work.


The ‘60s may have opened the door to the magician’s workshop, but ‘70s pop-culture steps through it and dances around the room. When a “satanic panic” wells up out of the Evangelical Christian subcultures at the end of this decade, and washes into mainstream Americana soon afterward, its preoccupation with albums like Dark Side of the Moon, 2112, Highway to Hell and We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll – though infuriating and often misguided – is understandable. For although most artists are simply glossing occult symbols over carnal material (KISS being perhaps the ultimate example), other artists approach metaphysics with deliberate intent. David Bowie, for instance, spends the most productive part of his career coked out of his mind, obsessively paging through his vast occult library in a stream-of-consciousness quest for dark enlightenment. Jimmy Page owns his own occult bookshop, the Equinox, while Bob Marley wears the uneasy mantle of a Rasta prophet whose music opens doors to a new tomorrow. From whitebread Styx to funky Parliament, the ‘70s rock to an uncanny beat. Behind the cartoonish phantasmagoria of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album cover (painted by horror-comix master Richard Corben), there’s a rich crop of serious… and occasionally sinister… mystic art.

Piss Factory

Mystic intents aside, ‘70s music is a testosterone playground, full of guns and fucking in various shades of euphemism. As the democratic spirit of the ‘60s warps into me-first selfishness, girls become vessels for the Rock Gods, not Rock Goddesses in their own right. Soul, pop, folk and, later, disco give the ladies a bit of room to move. Rock, however, is what Liz Phair will later call “Guyville”: a parade of dudes rocking with their cocks out. The few women who dare to strap on guitars – like Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Suzy Quatro, or Joan Jett and her Runaways – get treated like sexy freaks. Heart’s hard-rock anthem “Barracuda,” in fact, is inspired by an ad placed by the band’s label, implying that the Wilson sisters are lesbian lovers. The Runaways, meanwhile, are regarded even by their manager as jailbait pussy-meat – as “chicks” not rockers. A handful of women manage to embrace both rock and femininity with success. Most of them, though, stick to the punk-rock fringe, where women like Patti Smith, the Slits and Wendy O. Williams still command some degree of respect.


The U.S. approaches its bicentennial year disgraced, divided, and damn near bankrupt. Europe’s situation is even worse. Future generations will forget just how hopeless this decade feels, but the movies – Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs, Born Innocent, Earthquake – capture that vibe better than bell-bottomed nostalgia does. It’s no accident that the disaster-movie genre booms during the ‘70s. The entire world feels like a burning skyscraper, and many folks won’t make it out alive. The King is dead, but “God Save the Queen.”

Movies and music, incidentally, provide massive boosts for one another in this decade. Memorable soundtracks deepen the impact of movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and especially Star Wars. Some films – Tommy, Convoy, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – are inspired by hit records, and the “soundtrack album” – an oddity until this decade – becomes a lynchpin of the music industry, especially after the soundtracks for Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever shoot to the top of the charts and take their movies with them.

The forced cheer of the 1970s masks this decade’s desperation. Some of the sappiest and, in contrast, most aggressive music ever recorded until this point emerges from that desperation. Prices are high, fuel is precious, fashions are repugnant, and the social and sexual revolutions slide into swamps of hedonistic excess. Crime hits an all-time high, and many cities pile even higher with garbage and ruins. New York, London, Berlin, Detroit and Los Angeles become urban war zones, with Belfast and Kingston being bullet-riddled wastelands.

It’s not surprising, then, that the best music of the next several decades begins in such places.


Coming up next: the explosion of metal, punk, glam, reggae and hip-hop! 



[This article is the seventh part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]

The rest of this series can be found below:


About Satyr

Award-winning fantasy author, game-designer, and all 'round creative malcontent. Creator of a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the series Mage: The Ascension, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. Lives in Seattle. Hates shoes. Loves cats. Dances a lot.
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2 Responses to Sucking in the ‘70s (Music, Magic & History, Part VII)

  1. Pingback: Iron Men and Diamond Dogs (Music, Magic & History, Part VIII) | Satyros Phil Brucato

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