I was a London schoolboy when the 1970’s started, attending Latymer Upper, an all-boys grammar school in Hammersmith (just down the road from the Odeon cinema, which doubled as a famous music venue, and is now known as the Apollo). I was a happy-go-lucky lad, cheeky, blessed with reasonable intelligence, and more than a drop of vinegar and piss running through my veins. The big questions for me were not how can I save the planet or what University should I go to? But how could I meet girls, why had my football team, Fulham FC, dropped so badly to Division 3, and how could I get a job? I turned sixteen in 1970 and girls were far more interesting than books, Fulham FC was going down, and UK unemployment figures were going up. Money was tight for everybody, as tight as the lid on the jar that contained my dad’s homemade apple sauce. There was the usual parental tension at home that almost every young person goes through as they transition from youth to adulthood. Mine was no different. But the 70’s were a different decade than those that had gone before. I could feel it. I saw it at home. My parents relaxed their strict rules. I saw it at school. Young new teachers were appearing at the front of class with fresh ideas and new approaches. I saw it everywhere, subtly at first, and then major changes. The decade built on the successes that the 60’s generation had won (as my older brothers reminded me). There was more liberalism. More expectations. People were no longer shocked if young unmarried couples said they lived together. There were the new aspirations of purchasing a swanky hi-fi stereo unit, a colour TV, a new car, or, my goodness, even your own house. Women were becoming more vocal in their demands for equality. There was a pronounced awareness of global, racial, sexual, gender, and economic issues. People were going to march, strike, fight, and sing about elements that were important to them. On top of all that the UK went metric in the 1970’s. Currency was decimalized February 1971 eliminating such traditional denominations as the shilling, the florin (two shillings), and the ten bob note (ten shillings), replaced by 5p, 10p, and 50p coins. There was an end to the traditional. This was a New Britain. But it was messy on all fronts.
There was a café opposite my school – the 220. It was owned by an Indian family that had emigrated to the UK. How they made any profit I’m not sure. There was a small stream of regular customers, but we skint schoolboys were its main clientele. Sometimes tough yobs from the neighbourhood would make their presence known by seating themselves menacingly at the laminated tables by the door. But mainly it was our school hang out; from youthful teens like me, on the verge of manhood, to experienced senior sixth form boys on their way to bigger things in life, like University. A gaggle of girls from our sister school hung out there as well, and became close friends with our crowd. I still remember their names: Jane, Jacquie, Katie, and Samantha, and lucky the bloke who managed to get a date with one of them. We all shared something in common: the need for excitement beyond books and rigid English life.
For my crowd, the school day started off at the 220, sometimes cribbing missed homework assignments, or splurging on milky tea and overly buttered toast for 5p. At lunch it would be crowded with those that could afford hamburger and chips. News of parties (“Jane the Boot is having a bash this weekend. You coming?”), the latest records (“Have you heard “Horse With No Name” by America? Amazing.”), concerts (“Free is playing Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden. Can you make it?”), or rumbles (“The Skins from Kensal Rise are coming down tomorrow, watch out.”) like flyers from a street hawker. And sometimes we would meet at the café after school arranging dates or plotting bigger ambitions. It was social media before there was such a term or medium. One of the most important elements was the freedom to smoke cigarettes, which was still a cool thing to do then. The blue-grey smoke from Players No. 6 (one of the cheapest fags you could buy) hung in the greasy non-air-conditioned atmosphere of the close-quartered cafe. As you opened the door I’m sure the fumes escaped out onto King Street like smoke from a tannery. (We must have smelled like used ashtrays when we finally made it to class.)
But there were two other important elements to the 220: pinball machines and a well-stocked jukebox. The two pinball machines were at the very back of the café and this is where the colourful characters hung out. That’s where I hung out. I became, as the Who would sing, a pinball wizard, making sixpence (later 5p) last an eternity with constant replays. There was certain etiquette among the pinball crowd. If you wanted to play on that machine you put your coin on top of the glass by the flippers signifying you were next in line. The player on the machine would keep going until he had run out of games, or sell his replays to the next man up. One of the most frustrating things was to hear the school bell ring across the street, signifying the beginning of classes, and having to walk away from accumulated replays. But it was the well-stocked jukebox that dominated the atmosphere of the 220. It was never quiet. We fed our lunch money into the Rock-Ola machine constantly. Those songs mark a place in time for me. As I have learned, music has the magical power of capturing and preserving memories, both individual and universal, as if they were embedded in amber. One of the most popular songs in 1970 was “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies even though it had been released the previous year. It was a monster hit holding down the top spot for eight weeks at the end of 1969. It was co-written by Canadian Andy Kim. Many years later I would help out Andy when he revived his career in the twenty-first century. It was my karmic payback for the countless times I heard the tune in the 220. As I write this I remember that smoky café, playing pinball, and listening to the following tunes – a top 10 playlist of hits and events from those first years of the decade. I have turned up the imaginary volume in my mind to help recall a transitional period. The songs trigger remembrances, some of them specific to the music itself, some tangential. Music forever played in the background during that period. It helped shape my world and my young imagination.
- “Bridge Over Troubles Waters” – Simon and Garfunkel. (1970)
This #1 song, and album, was played everywhere in 1970: on the jukebox, on the radio and TV, at your friend’s house, even sometimes during English classes at school. Its romantic sound and poetic lyrics captured a feeling of both sadness and beauty. It perfectly demonstrated the power of pop music. Contemplative, thoughtful, and inward looking it summed up the change in mood from the 60’s to the 70’s when, as the song says, “times get rough”. The individual addressed in the lyric has gone through a hard period, as had the world: the war in Vietnam ripping the US apart, student riots in many major international cities, and a feeling we had lost our way. The LP became the best selling album at the time, dominating sales for the first three years of the decade. It marked the end of something old and the start of something new. You were not too sure what, but change was coming.
- “In the Summertime” – Mungo Jerry (1970)
It’s the one of the top selling singles of all time with over 30 million copies sold. The musical style was a throwback to another era: skiffle music featuring the sounds of a washboard and a jug. How could you not love this tune? Upbeat, carefree, positive, it made you want to go somewhere for a holiday. The roar of a motorcycle in the middle of the tune aided that feeling. It might have been just a drive in your parent’s Cortina, or a cheap English caravan holiday at rainy Bognor Regis, or the new “continental package holidays” on the sunny Costa Brava that were being offered by travel companies (even though tour operators were scrambling to get those hotels built!) My brother Basil worked for one of those London companies: Blue Sky. I remember people talking excitedly about going to France for the first time on a coach holiday, drinking wine, or experiencing dancing in the warm nights of a then unknown Spanish island of Ibiza.
That June, I sat my “O” (Ordinary) level exams, the equivalent of grade 10. I had the expectation of leaving school at 16 as so many British young people did. But I could not find a job. It didn’t help that I turned up to an interview at the employment office wearing a leather motorcycle jacket. So I hung out in my parent’s back garden with friends, enjoyed the sunshine, listened to music such as “In the Summertime”, and then surprisingly learned that I had passed five of the “O” level exams – enough to get me into the sixth form and study for my “A” (Advanced) levels. I no longer needed to wear a school uniform, but could dress in suitable suit and tie. Whoopee!! That July the dockers went on strike, a foreshadowing of the union and labour problems that would cripple the UK throughout the decade. Musically, the big talk that summer was the massive Isle of Wight festival. 500,000 music fans descended on the small south coast island. I read about it in Melody Maker. My next door neighbor, a lad my age, attended. It featured an incredible line-up that included Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and the Doors. Jimi Hendrix died less than three weeks later September 18 1970 of a drug overdose.
- “My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison (1970/71)
It was poetically appropriate that Paul McCartney officially announced that he had left the Beatles in April 1970. The Fab Four’s career had reached the end of its “long and winding road”. No “Get Back” for these guys. Beatles fans had to “Let it be”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the puns). The 60’s, as symbolized by the world’s most successful group, were over. The sound of the 70’s had begun. All four individual Beatles would go on to have incredibly productive careers (well, Ringo not so much, but he did have some hits), John Lennon especially. Lennon now lived in New York, was still big news, and as outspoken as ever, particularly against the war in Vietnam, and as a champion of women’s rights. He had a string of hits during the early 70’s:“Instant Karma”, “Power to the People” and “Imagine”. Paul McCartney, along with his wife Linda, launched the band Wings, which would eventually enjoy commercial success. (“Mull of Kintyre” by Wings would be the biggest selling UK single of the decade). But it was George Harrison that would write and record a timeless classic: “My Sweet Lord”. The song tapped into the spirituality of the times, and illustrated how pop music could transcend borders: geographic, religious, and personal. Many young people were searching for direction, and the song made them feel good and gave them hope. It was first publicly performed at the New York benefit “Concert for Bangladesh” that the ex-Beatle had organized – raising funds for those affected by the devastating floods in East Pakistan. The concert, which took place at Madison Square Garden, August 1 1971, was the inspiration for many other charitable events that followed, most notably 1985’s Live Aid. The positive vibes of this tune filled the 220 café. I gave this inspirational single, released on the Beatle’s Apple label, to my sister for her 14th birthday.
- “Double Barrel” – Dave and Ansil Collins (1971)
This was an unusual hit. The musical style was ska, Jamaican music that had been popularized not only by the Caribbean population that had emigrated to the UK, but British mods and skinheads. Skinheads had emerged about 1969 out of the mod scene. They were predominately white, working class young people, but they allied themselves to Jamaican youth, hence their appreciation for ska music. Their world revolved around Wimpey hamburger bars, pubs, discos and football grounds. When they were not fighting each other, they searched out their enemies in this vicious game of tribal warfare – the leather clad rocker. They looked for trouble and usually found it. There were major violent incidents, even murder, of “paki-bashing” (violence towards people of Indian and Pakistani origin) and “queer bashing” (the baiting and beating up of homosexuals).
There had already been a few ska/reggae hits on the British charts by the likes of Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Jimmy Cliff, but this track by brothers Dave and Ansil Collins (on a label subsidiary of Trojan Records) highlighted skinhead culture. From the vocal boast at the beginning of the track informing the audience that “I am the magnificent”, to its clippity-clop musical style that seemed to encourage the boots and braces dance steps of that teenage cult, it became an anthem of sorts. It was played a lot on the public address system at football grounds. Whenever a skinhead entered the 220 café (whether from school or an outsider) this tune would be programmed on the jukebox. But the song also crossed over into mainstream culture. The song went to #1 on the UK charts May 1971.
- “It’s Too Late” – Carole King (1971)
This single was a doorway into a whole world of musical thoughts: Carole King’s Tapestry album. The song was masterful; the whole album was genius. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bridge Over Troubled Waters, or Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman (released just three months earlier), it not only captured the quiet, contemplative mood of the times, but it was from a woman’s perspective. The single, and the album, were at once deeply personal and yet universal. It was like a musical diary of thoughts, mood swings, and the changing times when people felt “the earth move” literally and symbolically. Themes emerged on songs that people identified with: “It’s Too Late” reminded people of staying in bed all morning to get over a heartbreaking romance; “You’ve got a Friend” summed up the simple and beautifully honesty of having at least one friend when times are bad. There was restlessness in the world, a feeling captured in the song “So Far Away” – doesn’t anyone live in one place anymore? And the song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” tapped into female issues at a time when women were fighting for equality in all aspects of life. Even the photograph on the front cover of the album was profound in its own unpretentious way: Ms. King, barefoot and in jeans, sitting beside the window with her cat. The image emitted confidence, honesty, and strength. Tapestry, and its singles, would go on to win numerous accolades. It would become one of the best selling albums by a female artist of all time. It set records for a female solo artist, fifteen consecutive weeks at #1 on Billboard’s album chart, a feat that would not be surpassed until the 1990’s by Whitney Houston.
- “Brown Sugar” – the Rolling Stones (1971)
Running counter point to Carole King’s feminine sensibilities was the Rolling Stones blues infused hit “Brown Sugar”, with lead singer Mick Jagger singing the virtues of performing cunnilingus on an African-American woman. On the b-side was the song “Bitch”. It was the first single from the Sticky Fingers album. That, combined with the front cover photograph of a male crotch, the outline of a large penis visible beneath denim jeans, plus the Stones logo of the lascivious big lips and tongue, left nothing to the imagination as to the inspiration for the world famous group during this stage of their career. The image of Mick Jagger strutting like a proud prince on the Top of the Pops stage, with his fist pumped in the air and the other hand on his hip with the crooked elbow flapping away like a chicken wing, remains as vivid today as it was back then. That posturing was duplicated by dancers in discos all across the country whenever the song was played.
This was a time when sex was pushing the boundaries in every direction. The Sun newspaper launched its page three topless girl photos alongside news of the day in November 1970. It became a defining element of UK working class news media. There was always that strange feeling of being on a crowded train or bus and seeing a man reading The Sun, then turning the inside page to expose a pair of boobs for all to see; the granny that sat next to him frowning with the effrontery of it all. You could always find a used copy of the newspaper in the carriages of British Rail. That same year Ann Summers opened her first sex shops, eventually becoming a small chain of boutique stores selling sex toys and lingerie to high street shoppers. The Benny Hill Show, with its racy humour and pin-up girls, was one of the most popular programs on British TV. And the Rolling Stones were still considered the most dangerous group in the world.
- “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye (1971)
Brit music fans loved (and still do) Motown music. It didn’t matter what your preferred musical genre was it seemed everybody loved the music that came out of Detroit. But this song, and the album of the same name, was something new. This single introduced the audience to something far bigger: modern life in that dreamland known as the USA. The sound and the hipness of the music were, in the lingo of the times, super bad. But even more so was the complete work. Imagine if you will, an African-American soldier returning from fighting in the hell known as the Vietnam War. He has left one mess behind in Asia and is confronted with another hell in, not only his hometown of Detroit, but the whole country. Drug abuse, racial conflict, inner city hardships, environmental degradation, and personal problems: those were the themes of Marvin Gaye’s soulful concept album What’s Going On. Despite Motown Records owner Berry Gordy’s original belief that the album had limited commercial appeal (it wasn’t until the release of the title single and its immediate success that Gordy believed in the project) it became an instant classic. It revealed another dimension to soul music and to Marvin Gaye, one of Motown’s biggest solo stars, as important as Diana Ross. “The sound of young America” (as the label was known) now had a conscience, a voice that sung not just about love and sex, but about things that mattered: the planet, the people, our future. You did not have to personally identify with the problems elucidated in the lyrics and caught in the grooves of one of the greatest albums of all time to appreciate the confusion and the musical magic.
- “Get it On” – T. Rex (1971)
It there was one artist that demonstrated how to re-invent yourself, from an unfashionable 60’s hippie musician into a 70’s pop star sex god, it was the diminutive Marc Bolan. His golden curly locks framed a pixie face – he was, as rock critics noted, Dionysian. (A word that at the time I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded brilliant.) Bolan’s first major band was Tyrannosaurs Rex, part of the progressive rock scene of the late 60’s, and then as the 70’s began he shortened the band name to T.Rex, wore glitter and platform shoes, and changed his sound from prog rock to glam rock. He was one of the biggest stars of those early years of the 70’s. He was androgynous and appealed to both girls and guys. It was his style, and sexual ambiguity, that defined a change in fashion. Platform shoes, colourful clothes, eye liner, and crushed velvet jackets were in vogue. Guys were having their hair styled, rather than just cut, in unisex salons. And this song, with its childlike nonsense lyric, summed it up… get it on – bang a gong! It climbed to the top of the charts in July 1971 – one of four number #1’s T.Rex enjoyed between 1971-72. Bolan died in a car crash September 17 1977.
- “Changes” – David Bowie (1972)
David Bowie, like Marc Bolan, bent gender identification. This single, which alluded to all the changes happening in society, was from the Hunky Dory album. The cover shot was of Bowie appearing more like a woman than a man. He was the first major rock star to come out publicly as being bi-sexual. But that did not matter to his fans. Bowie was on his way to becoming one of the most important artist in the history of rock’n’roll. Outer space was an important theme for Bowie, as if inspiration came from somewhere “out there.” He had already created a pop anthem for the times with his 1969 hit “Space Oddity”. And then he followed that theme, once again changing his image, with his next album release The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie had tapped into our fascination with the outer reaches of the universe. It was everywhere in the news. Following the original moon landing in 1969 the USA had achieved five further successful lunar landings with the Apollo mission. The planet Mars appeared to be the next frontier. And Bowie was hip to that as well. Hunky Dory also contained the classic track “Life on Mars” (However, it would not be released as a single until 1973.) It is considered, by some music critics, as one of the greatest singles of all time. David Bowie changed the art form. He was on his way to becoming one of the most important stars in the rock’n’roll universe.
- “Heart of Gold” – Neil Young (1971/72)
This folk/rock song by Canadian singer Neil Young captured the mood of café life. As you sipped your beverage it got you thinking. It evoked travel and detachment. It took you to another place. There was a lyrical weight to the song which implied importance. It detailed getting old, as if the hippie idealism was over, but it was still worth searching for something more important: a heart of gold. There was a prophetic quality to it. It also sounded like Bob Dylan. It would prove to be the most commercially successful single in Neil Young’s career. The track was from the wildly successful Harvest album, which in itself evoked something natural, something that was not of the city.
But in the 220 café the B-side, “Sugar Mountain”, received just as much airplay as the A-side hit. This song talked about leaving home, of coloured balloons, and an innocence of a distant place. To me, its fragile vocal sound and sensibility somehow spoke about Canada. I didn’t know anything about the country or its history (except the 1867 British North American act that had been drummed into me in History class). The only thing I knew was the old joke: How do you get to Canada? Answer: turn right at Wales. If there was one thing that I could point to that sowed a seed in my imagination about Canada it was this song: Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain.
Skinheads, Fur Traders, and DJs is due September 2017 via Dundurn Press