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Was 1971 the year ‘music changed everything’?

“1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” is on Apple TV+. It is based on the David Hepworth book “Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded.”

June 13, 2021 / 12:16 PM IST
Led Zeppelin performing on March 21, 1973. (Photo: Heinrich Klaffs via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0)

Led Zeppelin performing on March 21, 1973. (Photo: Heinrich Klaffs via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0)

Everything changed with the music of 1971. No, wait. It was 1973. Check that — 1974 was the year, except it was music, film and television, but only in Los Angeles.

If you’re writing a book, or adapting one for television, you could do worse than choosing a specific year as your organizing principle. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with the tumultuous early ’70s, when pop culture seemed to go down in flames and then rise again on a regular basis.

The latest to take up the challenge are the makers of “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” based on the David Hepworth book “Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded.” Released in full on Apple TV+ on May 21, 2021, the eight-part docuseries offers plenty of evidence that its human subjects are convinced of the premise, as they typically are. “Music said something,” Chrissie Hynde says over the opening credits; “We were creating the 21st century in 1971,” says David Bowie.

But however hard it may be to avoid some boomer bias — a sense of generational self-importance is, after all, baked into the premise — it’s perhaps even harder to confine the scope of such endeavors to a single year: Did the music of 1971 really change things more than ’72? What would 1969 have to say about it? How to begin even making the case?


“Sometimes you’ve got to make a bold statement,” Asif Kapadia, overall director of the series and one of its executive producers, said in a video call from London. “From our research, there was something amazing about that particular moment, where it comes after the ’60s, where it comes in terms of the ’70s, as a turning point.”

The series assembles so many captivating clips and strings together so much recent history that it’s hard to deny the results, whether you buy the premise or not.

In 1971, Marvin Gaye was transforming the protest song with the sublime “What’s Going On”; the Rolling Stones were hammering away on their raw classic “Exile on Main St.” (and doing copious amounts of heroin) in a rented villa in the South of France; Aretha Franklin was showing her public solidarity with incarcerated Black activist Angela Davis; and David Bowie was writing the book on rock ’n’ roll androgyny.

It was also a remarkable coming-out year for female artists: Carole King, who split with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin in 1968, released “Tapestry” in 1971, and Joni Mitchell put out “Blue,” after the end of her relationship with Graham Nash. These weren’t just great albums; they were also personal statements of independence, resonant cries of defiance and vulnerability in what was still often a man’s world.

But life simply doesn’t organize itself according to 12-month periods, even when books and TV series ask it to. No project of this kind could impart the proper context without spending time, for example, on the Manson "family" massacre and the disaster in Altamont, California, in which four people died at a free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones — two 1969 events that signaled the end of the Flower Power era. The Kent State shootings of 1970 were another such bellwether, helping set the table for the mood and music to come.

Even as it strays from 1971, this is first-rate cultural history with a killer beat. So sometimes, you bend the rules a little.

Consider Bowie, who ends up with the last word in the series. “The Man Who Sold the World” was released in the United States in 1970, but in Bowie’s native England in 1971. He recorded the bulk of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” which provides the series’s climax, in 1971, but the album was released in 1972. Similarly, the Stones recorded most of “Exile” in that villa in 1971, but they finished it in 1972, the year the album was released.

“We had a very basic rule that it had to have a very heavy footprint in ’71,” said series producer Danielle Peck, who directed four of the episodes. “It might start in 1969, and it might finish two years later. But the bulk of the event had to be felt in ’71, because we needed to have some way of filtering out all these amazing stories.”

Of course, you can eliminate all ambiguity by embracing the subjectivity. Pointing out that he turned 21 in 1971 — and that we all probably view that personal milestone as special — Hepworth, in his book, doubles down: “There’s an important difference in the case of me and 1971,” he writes. “The difference is this. I’m right.”

At least he thinks he’s right. When Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, decided to celebrate a year, he chose 1974, and he decided to include music, film and television. He also narrowed his geographic focus to the hub of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles, which was a lot sleepier then than now.

The resulting book, “Rock Me on the Water: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics,” makes a strong case. Brownstein saw that year as the end of an era.

“The passing of LA’s cultural preeminence captured a much larger change in American life,” he writes. “The most memorable works of early 1970s Los Angeles — from ‘Chinatown’ to ‘All in the Family’ to Jackson Browne’s great album ‘Late for the Sky’ — emerged from the collision of ’60s optimism with the mounting cynicism and pessimism of the ’70s.”

But let’s play devil’s advocate with “1971” for a moment. What if Hepworth’s certainty is justified? What if 1971 is in fact the be-all, end-all in rock and pop, and not just a year when a bunch of cool music came out? What if “I’m right” isn’t arrogance, but accuracy?

A list of 1971 releases is certainly daunting. Aside from those already mentioned, there was, for starters, Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality”; Can’s “Tago Mago”; the Doors’ “L.A. Woman”; Franklin’s “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”; “Led Zeppelin IV”; John Lennon’s “Imagine”; Bill Withers’ “Just As I Am”; and Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Going On.”

Not bad, says 1972. But check this out: Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”; Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”; Lou Reed’s “Transformer”; the Staple Singers’ “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself,” and on and on.

Quality is in the ear of the beholder. Writer Andrew Grant Jackson alone has made book-length cases for the importance of 1965 and 1973 — and to its credit, the docuseries “1971” realizes this. At its best, it steers clear of the album checklist game, which the source book embraces, in favor of incisive cultural history.

It zooms in on the Attica prison uprising and what it said about racial incarceration discrepancies and prison conditions in general. It looks at the obscenity charges leveled by the British government against Oz, an underground journal that provoked outrage when it had 20 teenagers edit a special “School Kids Issue.” (Among the publication’s most vocal defenders were John Lennon and Yoko Ono.)

These were times of social upheaval, not just great music. But they were emboldened by the music, by the empowerment of women and African Americans, and by gender-bending warriors. Was 1971 the gold standard for pop, rock and soul? Any answer would be drenched in subjectivity. But it was absolutely an exit point from the ’60s into a hectic new era, hard to define but rich in conflict and possibility.

“I’m sure different people have different arguments,” Kapadia said, “but our point was there was something special going on in that moment with the end of the Beatles and the beginning of other artists, who then create what we can now see was the music of the future.”

When you watch “1971,” it’s probably best not to worry if it was “the year music changed everything.” Maybe it’s enough to appreciate the era and its soundtrack without fact-checking the title.

Now, let’s take a look at what albums came out in 1975.

Chris Vognar | c.2021 The New York Times Company
New York Times

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