Back In Time
L.P. Hartley’s novel ‘The Go-Between’, opens with the words “The past is another country. They do things differently there.” To me, the memorable past is the 1970s, and at this remove, it feels more like another planet. Albeit a planet I rather miss.
In the mid-seventies, on Angel Row in Nottingham, there was a kiosk. Commonplace in all city centres, kiosks were walk-up shops selling sweets, cigarettes, newspapers and the like. This one was run by a couple of Indian brothers and they sold something called ‘Bengal matches’. Essentially, these were tiny fireworks. As with the familiar red-tipped matches, they came in a stiff card box, but were half-coated in a black substance. On striking they would ignite into a blaze of red, blue or green and burn for ten seconds or so. They were quite brilliant, and I felt incomplete if I didn’t have a box in my pocket. Anybody could buy them, and only the most timid of parents objected. Eventually, some pyrotechnics legislation outlawed their sale, and like that decade, they were gone forever.
My nostalgia for the ten years which took me from five years old to my teens, isn’t rose-tinted. Quiet apart from any other consideration, my father died in 1975, so my recollections don’t appear in a Vaseline-smeared haze of idyll and untainted quaintness – quite the opposite. The seventies appear in my memory as a battered and scuffed period. Despite that, or even because of it, they also come back to me as a ‘grown-up’ era.
After the post-war consensus and economic boom of the fifties, which then gave out to the experimental and liberating sixties, we were presented with a world of hope and possibilities, of space exploration, sexual freedom, luxury goods and foreign travel. What we received was the end of The Beatles and the start of such heartaches as fuel crises, industrial turmoil, instability and devaluation. And yet we were now equipped with an insight and maturity that allowed excitingly new creative adventures: a final blast at music, movies and television, before the stench of focus-groups and accountants seeped into it all.
The writer (and co-founder of this website) David Hepworth, flags 1971 as the zenith for popular music – and thereby a thousand pub debates are ignited. But allow the remaining nine years of the decade into the argument and it is almost unassailable: ‘Led Zeppelin 4′, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘After The Gold Rush’, ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Transformer’, ‘Parallel Lines’, ‘Fun House’, ‘London Calling’, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ ‘Exodus’. As this isn’t a list piece, I’ll pause there – but, y’know, crikey!
And while there are vast, musical oceans between each of these collections (another sign of merit), they all have that ‘grown-up’ feel running through them. This was serious music, not in a pretentious Captain Beefheart way, but in a way that insisted successful records had depth, substance and invention. Even bands considered ‘throwaway’ at the time were actually putting out vivid and vital material. Go get yourself a copy of ‘Slade In Flame’ or ‘The Slider’ – you’ll see my point.
As I was a British child in the 1970s, I didn’t spend any time whatsoever pounding the slushy sidewalks of New York or the sweltering alleyways of LA. So it is hard to pinpoint precisely why the imported TV programmes, which showed me these places, had such resonance. Nevertheless, to this day, the gritty, bruised American cities I first saw on our wood-finish telly, conjure a tainted, litter-strewn glamour I find irresistible. It’s there in the opening titles of ‘Starsky and Hutch’, ‘Kojak’ and ‘The Streets Of San Francisco’. Rusting fire-escapes, smoke-choked bars, brown leather jackets and aviator shades, go-go dancers, enormously flat cars and elaborate chest jewellery for men. These seedily exciting images, always underpinned by signature tunes loaded with punchy brass and wah-wah guitar pedals, all seem faintly absurd now, but strangely real; infinitely more so than ‘Hollyoaks’ or ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.
British TV in the seventies wasn’t quite so mean or exotic, and there was an awful lot of rubbish (as there was in America, we just didn’t see it). However, this was also the time of Monty Python, Dad’s Army, The Sweeney, and Doctor Who. Besides, TVs and screens weren’t the kids’ staple then. Playing ‘out on bikes’ was always preferable to the box.
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, astonishing things were afoot. I am unshakeable in my belief that the best motion pictures we will ever see were shot in the seventies. ‘Kloot’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Badlands’, ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’… again, I’ll halt – but this is a very long list of extraordinary brilliance. I hope you’ll also see that maturity, integrity and authenticity I associate with the decade, in all these pictures.
The lynchpin of the early 21st century is technology. Not only does it preoccupy and shape our lives and work, it has almost become the fabric of western society. In the seventies, we didn’t crave this revolution, staring at our digital watches and willing them to turn into iPads. Some basic technology was there (pocket calculators, for instance) but we didn’t really give it a second thought. Computers only appeared in science fiction flicks and a gleaming, lemon-yellow Raleigh Chopper was substantially more stirring than anything that bleeped.
No, this wasn’t a time of miracles and wonders, more a time of risk and edginess – that was, and is, the appeal. When the Sex Pistols suggested a philosophy of anarchy it didn’t seem particularly unlikely. Governments fell with alarming regularity in the seventies (two in 1974), domestic terrorism was a frequent occurrence, and the UK was forced to present a begging bowl to the World Bank. There was plenty to be grimly mature about, but ‘Anarchy In The UK’ was released just four years before the onset of Thatcherism. That 1979 election victory then heralded a slow, inexorable homogenisation of the culture. In the 1980s ‘The Exorcist’ became ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Ziggy Stardust became ‘Let’s Dance’. A new hygiene began to impose itself, replacing the rough-edged creative maturity with a somewhat sickly and artificial optimism, urging wealth, purchase-power and individual victory over our own personal Argentinas.
I don’t deny there’s always something wondrous about the era in which you grew up, whenever that happened to be. For my kids, it was the nineties – and I have no doubt they will find aspects of that decade evocative and pleasing, as they look back on their early years. Which is why it would be unfair of me to assert the 1970s were in any way better. Only that the seventies hold an enormous enchantment for me. Which is why I wanted to give a flavour of the era from my standpoint. After all, it’s never coming back is it?