August 16, 2010 | « back

NEW YORK TIMES – Rescuing 1970 From The Remainder Bin


JAMES TAYLOR wraps up a tour with Carole King. A new Jimi Hendrix album makes its debut in the Top 5. Elton John has joined forces with one of his heroes, the extremely hirsute singer-pianist Leon Russell. Fans think music should be free for the taking.

Is this 2010 — or 1970? The answer, strangely enough, is: both.

From Michael Jackson’s bank account to robust ticket sales for Roger Waters’s “Wall” tour, pop has witnessed its share of unlikely comebacks this year. Perhaps the least expected, though, is that of the year 1970, just in time for its 40th anniversary. (Pop-culture nostalgia tends to run in 20-year cycles, making this revival even more surprising.)

Mr. Taylor and Ms. King’s “Troubadour Reunion” shows — the second-highest-grossing tour of the year after Bon Jovi’s, according to Pollstar, which tracks tour grosses and ticket sales — recreate the period four decades ago when Mr. Taylor’s career was kicking in (with his Sweet Baby James album) and Ms. King, a veteran Brill Building songwriter not yet known for her own records, was simply the pianist in his band. On Oct. 19 Mr. Russell and Mr. John will release their first-ever collaboration, The Union, which recalls the months in 1970 when Mr. John opened for Mr. Russell at halls like the legendary Fillmore East. Valleys of Neptune, an album of exhumed recordings by Hendrix, entered the charts earlier this year at No. 4, just like his Band of Gypsys did, at No. 5, in 1970.

Even a relatively youngish act is paying homage. Marc Cohn, the piano-playing balladeer best known for the adult-contemporary standard “Walking in Memphis,” has just released Listening Booth: 1970. On it this gravel-road-voiced singer remakes and rearranges songs familiar to anyone who was glued to AM or FM radio that year: “Wild World,” “The Tears of a Clown,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Into the Mystic,” “The Letter” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” among them.

What’s genuinely striking about these echoes of 1970 is that the year has rarely been treated as one of pop’s landmarks. In the annals of rock history it’s never ranked in the league of 1956 (the arrival of Elvis Presley), 1964 (the Beatles overrun America), 1967 (hippies reach the mainstream during the Summer of Love), 1969 (Woodstock), 1977 (punk, via the Sex Pistols, hits the States) and 1992 (the year grunge came to the malls, thanks to Nirvana and Pearl Jam). Even next-to-recent possible candidates for these slots, like 2001 (the White Stripes and the Strokes revive “garage rock”) or 2002 (the premiere of the regrettably influential America Idol), 1970 doesn’t receive much respect.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why. That year alone an astonishing number of defining acts from the 1960s collapsed. Paul McCartney announced he wouldn’t be working with the Beatles in the foreseeable future, while Simon and Garfunkel, who’d just released the instant standard “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” quietly broke up after a tour that amounted to only six concerts. (That sequence was eerily repeated this year, when the reunited duo canceled its summer tour in the wake of Art Garfunkel’s vocal-cord paralysis.)

It was the year Peter, Paul and Mary began an eight-year hiatus, Diana Ross left the Supremes, Lou Reed parted ways with the Velvet Underground, and Sam split with Dave. Even the Monkees, by then down to only two members, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, made their last recordings and expired along with the decade that created them.

Seeking to capitalize on the success of Woodstock — both the 1969 festival and the hit movie the following March — promoters in 1970 aimed to duplicate that gathering with their own multi-day, multi-act festivals. But most were disappointments or, at worst, catastrophes, plagued by riots, unbridled drug use and clashes with police or local officials not eager to have tens or hundreds of thousands of rock fans invade their towns. From the New York Pop concerts on Randalls Island to a Rolling Stones show in Helsinki, concertgoers felt it was perfectly acceptable to storm the gates and demand to be let in gratis — a precursor to the expectation among future music fans that they shouldn’t have to pay for music on the Web.

Simultaneously the country wasn’t in such terrific shape either. A list of events that could have been subjects for 40th-anniversary celebrations this year would have included the Kent State shootings, the Weather Underground’s accidental demolition of a brownstone on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, the near-disastrous Apollo 13 expedition, the beginning of the Charles Manson trial (with opening statements that linked the murders to Mr. Manson’s obsession with the Beatles’ White Album) and the first use of the Republican Party’s so-called Southern Strategy. No wonder few want to commemorate 1970.

Yet that very confluence of events now marks 1970 as one of rock’s (not to mention the country’s) most fascinating and underappreciated years. Theories about when the ’70s began vary; some have argued for 1972 or 1973, just as the ’60s didn’t truly begin until President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. But looking back, 1970 was truly the year in which any remaining slivers of idealism of the ’60s gave way to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade to come.

Mr. Taylor and Ms. King’s joint tour, with a repertory heavy on Earth Shoe-era signifiers like “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” reveled in that moment in time, down to video screens that projected photos of their early-’70s selves. The title track of Hendrix’s Valleys of Neptune recorded in 1970 but never before released, is another reminder of the newly fluid, lyrical direction in which he was heading before his death that September. (And let’s not forget that Janis Joplin overdosed that fall as well.)

Mr. Cohn’s Listening Booth tells the story of the year just as lucidly. What came to be known as easy-listening rock arrived during this time with hits like Bread’s “Make It With You,” here redone as a pillow-soft R&B duet with India.Arie. Mr. Cohn also revives Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown,” which capped Motown’s first major singles era. (The mid-’70s work of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder took the company in darker, more personal but equally exhilarating directions.) The juxtaposition of John Lennon’s “Look at Me” (from his Plastic Ono Band solo album) followed by Mr. McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” (from his own, first post-Beatle record, McCartney) subtly evokes the Beatles’ nasty breakup, which reached its apex when Mr. McCartney filed a lawsuit against Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at year’s end.

In another sign that 1970 may finally be receiving a degree of respect, Mr. Cohn and his producer, John Leventhal, treat each song with careful, respectful solemnity. They strip down Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York” to parched, small-combo basics as if each was a modern standard on par with timeless cabaret songs.

As Mr. Cohn’s album somewhat acknowledges, the rock landscape effectively flip-flopped by the end of 1970. Bands were suddenly out of vogue. The advent of the solo singer-songwriter — Mr. Taylor, Mr. John, Ms. King, Mr. Stevens and many more — reflected a cultural shift from solidarity to solipsism. Rock experienced its first rattling generation gap. In a leading British music poll Led Zeppelin replaced the Beatles for the first time as the most popular band in that country. Debut albums by Black Sabbath and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, out that autumn, proclaimed the arrival of a louder, far less subtle music for those already too young to recall the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Forty years later a generation gap continues to divide fans. (Do you prefer the Arcade Fire or Kesha?) And a new generation of balladeers, the likes of M. Ward and Bon Iver, offers an alternative to rock the same way Mr. Taylor and his peers did. Despite its plethora of bad news, the grooves of 1970, rock’s forgotten year, play on.