Career peaks for Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, The Who, Joni Mitchell and Rod Stewart – in 1971 popular music reached its high water mark.
On a recent flight to Alicante from the UK I read a magazine article making the case for 1966 being the high water mark for popular music. The evidence looked watertight – Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, Fifth Dimension, each one a landmark album and released the same year as outstanding offerings from The Kinks, The Who, the Rolling Stones (and that was just in London), with ground-breaking music also being made in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
During the plane journey I began making a mental list of what I consider the greatest albums ever made: What’s Goin’ On, Born To Run, Blue, Plastic Ono Band, Blood On The Tracks, Who’s Next, Rubber Soul, London Calling, Tapestry, and in doing so realised how many were made in 1971. So without further here is the case for that year being the ‘annus mirabilis’ of rock music.
At first glance 1971 is a strange year for rock. The Beatles had split, there was no new material from Bob Dylan and constant personnel changes had blown The Beach Boys and The Byrds off course. But with What’s Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye gave Motown its finest hour. More social comment than sweet soul, the songs focused on inner city deprivation, brotherhood and the mess being made of the environment – marvellous Marvin proving you could have a message and make great dance music at the same time. Tapestry (Carole King) and Blue (Joni Mitchell) are albums of incredible maturity and insight into human emotions, while Every Picture Tells A Story is Rod Stewart at his most charming, funny and poignant. The title track is a wonderful mixture of eloquence and ramshackle rock with the killer second side (Maggie May, Mandolin Wind, (I Know) I’m Losing You and Reason To Believe) a match for any side of an album ever recorded.
1971 also brought Sticky Fingers, an album of such swagger and attitude it could only have been recorded by the Rolling Stones, the best recorded rock band on the planet weighed in with the sonic masterpiece that is Led Zeppelin IV, while on Muswell Hilbillies, King Kink Ray Davies presents sketches of London that 40 years before Graham Greene would have been proud of.
But the final word in this momentous year goes to the Rolling Stone magazine Record Guide which states Who’s Next by The Who ‘may well be the finest rock record ever made.’ If you agree with that statement (as I do) there is little else to add. As Del Trotter once said: ‘I don’t care what they say, you can’t whack The Who.’
By the time we landed in Alicante my mind was made up, 1971 was the golden year. But waiting to show my passport I thought of 1969 – and of Abbey Road, Tommy, Crosby Stills & Nash, Let It Bleed, Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Band, Dusty in Memphis, Led Zeppelin II…
Career highs for Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart and Carole King take popular music onto a whole new level – and they all happen in the same year. Renowned rock writer Neil Sambrook takes a new look at an astonishing twelve months for rock – and reaches a startling conclusion.