Book review: 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year

British guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page, in concert with Led Zeppelin, 1983. Picture: Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page, in concert with Led Zeppelin, 1983. Picture: Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Was 1971 really the greatest year for rock music? David Hepworth has fun making the case, writes Aidan Smith

1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year by David Hepworth | Bantam, 384pp, £20

It’s all very well David Hepworth calling Carole King’s Tapestry a seminal album in a seminal year but to me it will forever be associated with the Meadow Milk Bar in Arbroath. This was the pitstop for all family holidays and Tapestry was the only music we ever had for the car journeys – on eight-track cartridge, no less. By the time we got to Smokie-town and its roadside cafe, we needed a runaround, we needed those ice cream sandwiches known by a politically incorrect name – and we needed a world without natural women, friends for when you’re down and troubled and bloody Smackwater Jack.

Are we nearly there yet? Is the album finished yet? Those trips killed Tapestry for me and I’d never listened to it, or given it another thought, until reading this book, based round Hepworth’s assertion that 1971 was rock’s annus mirabilis.

Was ’71 the best-ever? It was the year of the Led Zeppelin IV, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Don McLean’s American Pie, the beginning’s of glam rock and stadium rock, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, the music getting serious. We have to say “was”, because whatever lies ahead for rock it will not reinvent the wheel, or break another butterfly on that wheel. Everything really ground-breaking was done a long time ago and we’re simply arguing over which twelve months in the golden era was the best. Sorry, but even Coldplay, Kanye West and – hud me back – Ellie Goulding bringing out new records within a few weeks of each other is not going to make a case for 2016.

Goulding’s career was going nowhere down a desultory, bedwettingly sensitive singer-songwritery street until she started wearing hot pants. Hepworth, I think, is a connoisseur of hot pants. “Hot pants are everywhere,” he writes on page 11. They turn up again on page 51, and on pages 102, 116, 123 and 124. He’s simply describing the world as it was in ’71. A world where women at top magazines – Nora Ephron among them – successfully campaigned to be recognised as writers, not researchers. A world where thanks to the availability of the pill “people living in close proximity to each other almost felt compelled to sleep together as if the act were merely a natural extension of familiarity”. Where President Nixon was sufficiently worried by hot pants to mention them in taped conversations with Oval Office aides. Where flight attendants wore them and on the jet chartered by Mick Jagger, they were the attire of choice of the wives and girlfriends of famous friends attending the Rolling Stone’s St Tropez wedding to Bianca Perez-Mora Macias.

The year also produced Sticky Fingers, an important album some might say, but I have a blind-spot regarding the Stones and not even the dust-jacket image of Keith Richards strumming his guitar for Anita Pallenberg, who doesn’t appear to be wearing any pants, hot or otherwise, is going to remove it. But I’m grateful to Hepworth for the hilarious set-piece covering these nuptials, which ends with Jagger’s poor father stepping over the wasted guests, still carrying the wedding present he’d had no chance to hand over, and sighing: “I hope my other son doesn’t become a superstar.”

With a droll eye, in love with the music but alert to preposterousness, Hepworth sketches stylus-sharp vignettes of the main players: Rod Stewart was “dressed like a disreputable clerk out of Dickens”. For Sly Stone the problem was that “the many women in his life were giving him grief about the many women in his life”. He’s also great on the social history, reminding us that this was a year of no mobile phones but 70,000 red boxes, no gates on Downing Street, only one black footballer and Jimmy Savile urging us to clunk-click every trip. Out of this world came Tapestry. I’ve just dug it out – fantastic record.