by David Hepworth
The book behind the Apple TV+ docu-series, Never a Dull Moment offers a rollicking look at 1971, rock’s golden year, the year that saw the release of the indelible recordings of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Who, Rod Stewart, Carole King, the Rolling Stones, and others and produced more classics than any other year in rock history. Read an excerpt and listen to the Spotify playlist, featuring songs from the full series below!
January 1971. The United States is in recession. Unemployment in the inner cities is nearing 10 percent. New York City subway tokens have just gone up to thirty cents. Transport, like much of the city, is in crisis. The streets are full of potholes. The wind that blows down the avenues blinds pedestrians with grit and makes uncollected garbage gather round their ankles. Gasoline is thirty-six cents a gallon. OPEC is imposing a 50 percent tax on oil extraction. Ford is thinking about making smaller cars. A seventeen-year-old from Washington Heights who calls himself TAKI 183 is becoming famous for leaving his tag on subway cars.
People are leaving the city in the face of crime and filth. Property values are dropping. An apartment in one of Manhattan’s smartest addresses is on the market for $225,000, half of what it cost in 1969. All the movies made in New York, such as the recent Jack Lemmon–Sandy Dennis hit The Out-of-Towners, depict it as a place only the foolhardy would choose to visit. The city’s magazines all carry sardonic survival guides. A picture of the half-finished World Trade Center illustrates an article in the New York Times promoting the unfashionable view that the city might yet be a desirable place to live. Someone in the convention business timidly suggests reviving a musician’s saying from the 1920s and christening the city the Big Apple.
Some 85 percent of New York’s twenty-five thousand police patrolmen are on strike over a pay claim. A cop earns around $11,000 a year, just above the national average. According to a detective named Frank Serpico, giving evidence to an inquiry into corruption, many can earn an additional $600 a month in bribes from illegal gambling rackets. Serpico will eventually be played on-screen by Al Pacino. Already in early 1971 the real-life corner-cutting detective Eddie Egan is the model for the fictional Popeye Doyle in the upcoming movie The French Connection.
Consumer prices are beginning to rise too fast to make it worth printing prices on menus. McSorley’s Old Ale House, which has just been compelled to admit women for the first time, has adjusted its draft ale from 50 to 60 cents. However, a McDonald’s hamburger is 20 cents and a Coke can be as little as 10 cents. It’s still possible to have dinner for four at a smart place like 21 for $130 including wine and tips. The new John Lennon solo album is $3.49 at King Karol while George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass is $6.98.
The Tonight Show on New Year’s Day 1971 is the last episode to carry a commercial for cigarettes. It’s for Virginia Slims, a brand aimed at women that uses the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Walter Cronkite presents the seven o’clock news. Ed Sullivan still fronts his variety show on Sunday nights. He is beginning to lose his memory. Sullivan won’t be renewed, nor will The Beverly Hillbillies or Petticoat Junction. There are no celebrity magazines. The foremost celebrity of the year is Tricia Nixon, who is engaged to be married. The big media organizations are terrified that they are losing touch with the young audience. National Lampoon satirizes their attempts to stay in touch, such as Cosmopolitan’s search for a nude male model. A Life magazine survey finds America’s most admired names are Robert Kennedy and Bill Cosby. Least admired are Fidel Castro and Eldridge Cleaver. Jimmy Carter, newly sworn in as governor of Georgia, says the state may have finally accepted integration. In cities like Cleveland, integration is resulting in the flight of second-generation European immigrants to the suburbs and the consequent hollowing out of the centers.
Hot pants are everywhere. “They are the kind of fad that topples institutions,” one fashion observer tells Life. Men’s barbershops are closing. Every businessman is growing sideburns. Jane Fonda, thirty-three, her blond, curly hair transformed into a harsh shag, has just completed her role as the call girl Bree Daniels in Klute. She has driven alone from California to New York to play the part. Once on set in a studio in Harlem, she insists the director let her sleep the night in her character’s apartment, the better to identify with her pain. The film glories in the squalor of the city. “After you’ve been in New York a month, you become tense and nervous and alienated,” says Fonda. Returning to California, determined to put her privileged life behind her, she sells her possessions and moves with her daughter into a house in a cul-de-sac in the shadow of the freeway.
Fonda puts her energies into supporting the increasing number of soldiers’ organizations opposing the continuation of the Vietnam War. The nation is riven with mistrust over the conflict, and its political poles seem entirely incapable of dialogue. Speaking for the older generation, Bob Hope, profiled in Life, says that 80 percent of the hippies on Sunset Strip “have a social disease.” The voting age is in the process of being lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. Employees report that the baby boomers now entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers want faster advancement and less formal dress codes, and in some cases even have to have the profit motive explained to them. On January 12 the gap between the older and the younger generation is dramatized in a new TV series called All in the Family, which pits Glenn Miller–loving working stiff Archie Bunker against his long-haired liberal son-in-law. Within months, even Richard Nixon can be heard complaining about the son-in-law on the newly installed recording system in the Oval Office. But for most young people TV is an irrelevance, as are the movies. Music is where it’s at.
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Watch the trailer for “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything”:
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In January 1971 Bruce Springsteen of Asbury Park, New Jersey, was twenty-one and still unknown beyond the immediate area, which was leaving fame perilously late. He had just returned from a visit to his parents at their new home in California, where he had time to reflect on the future of his band Steel Mill. They had endured a rather traumatic night on September 11, 1970, only four months after national guardsmen had opened fire on demonstrating students at Kent State University, killing four of them, when local police moved in with clubs swinging to enforce a curfew at an open-air show that Steel Mill were playing in the deceptively idyllic surroundings of the Clearwater Swim Club. Although they met the invasion with a certain amount of bravado, reconnecting the power after the police had cut it off, Danny Federici pushing a stack of speakers in the direction of some police who were trying to climb onto the stage, and Springsteen using his emerging stagecraft to keep the crowd on his side, the experience put Springsteen off any further “kick out the jams” rebel rhetoric.
Like bands the world over in 1971 who weren’t known for their own material, Steel Mill played anything and everything they could. Springsteen’s bands performed Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” they knocked out an Allman Brothers tribute called “Goin’ Back to Georgia,” and sometimes they even played a thirty-minute rock opera called “Garden State Parkway Blues.” When Steel Mill played shows in New Jersey, sometimes attracting as many as four thousand people despite never having been on the radio, there wouldn’t have been a single soul over the age of thirty, and there probably wouldn’t have been anyone under the age of eighteen. Audiences were uniformly young and unjaded; whatever they were hearing they felt as if they were hearing it for the first time.
During Springsteen’s holiday in California, he had been listening to the local FM stations, and his imagination had been captured by the breezy sound of Van Morrison’s His Band and the Street Choir, with its attendant hit record “Domino” and the soul revue force of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It was during this trip that he decided Steel Mill would be no more, the band was going to boast horns, line up more like Morrison’s and Cocker’s, and the name on the marquee would henceforth be Bruce Springsteen.
There are few moves that require as much self-belief as taking a band that has previously been, at least notionally, a democracy and naming it after yourself. It can occur only if the leader has the nerve to lead and the musicians involved recognize the strength of his claim to do so. At the time Springsteen was living in a ground-floor apartment in Asbury Park, which he shared with Steve Van Zandt, John Lyon, and Albee Tellone. Once a week they invited more musician friends round and played Monopoly. (Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas would invite friends round to their Fulham flat to do the same thing, a good indication of how little was on the TV in 1971.) It was during those games, which involved all manner of rule bending, covert alliances, bribery, and skullduggery, that the twenty-one-year-old Springsteen took to referring to himself, with tongue barely an inch into his cheek, as “the Boss.”
By the end of 1971 he would bestow similar honorifics on the rest of his growing crew—“Miami” Steve Van Zandt, “Southside” Johnny Lyon, Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez, and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons—as he played night after night at the Student Prince in Asbury Park and farther afield, where the band’s standard performance would consist of four forty-minute sets with breaks in between.
Recalling this time in later years, Springsteen said, “Sometimes you’d come home with five hundred dollars in your pocket, and you could live on that for months. For a local band, that was a big success. And in that area, we were big local stars.”
Copyright © 2021 by David Hepworth.
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Listen to the Spotify playlist, featuring songs from the full series:
David Hepworth is a music journalist and publishing industry analyst who has launched several successful British magazines, presented the BBC rock music program Whistle Test, and anchored the coverage of Live Aid in ‘85. Winner of the Editor and Writer of the Year awards from the Professional Publishers Association and the Mark Boxer Award from the British Society of Magazine Editors, he is the radio columnist for the Guardian and a media correspondent for the newspaper.