1971 – The Year Music Changed Everything (Apple TV+)

You’ll be aware of David Hepworth’s book, 1971: Never a Dull Moment, in which he explores his thesis that 1971 was the annus mirabilis for the rock album, ground zero, the source, the apotheosis etc. etc. And when I reviewed that book, I said that I kind of liked the idea in theory but then discovered that, in reality, I didn’t like much of the music released in that year at all. I said,

From the list of albums by British artists, for example (Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Meddle,  Madman Across the Water, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV), I only ever owned one, plus a couple of tracks from one other. I’ve never much liked Bowie, Rod, Elton, the Floyd, or Zep. So while the arguments starts off sounding convincing, my honest reaction to a lot of the music is indifference. Hepworth argues that the above list would be the Mercury Prize nominees, had it existed then, and I’ve no doubt he’s correct. But I don’t think I’ve ever liked a Mercury Prize nominee artist, ever.

The producers of 1971 The Year Music Changed Everything, which is an 8-part documentary series on  TV+, have used Hepworth’s book as a jumping off point (he’s named as a consulting producer but notably does not appear as a contributor), and then they’ve tweaked and adjusted the thesis and tried to build a narrative—with mixed results, it has to be said.

Let’s start with the glaring omission and the underlying niggle and get that out of the way. Watching this a couple weeks after the 50th anniversary celebrations of Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram, you can’t help noticing that Ram doesn’t get a mention. I can’t remember if Hepworth covered it in his book, but I suspect it was only in passing. The only shot of Paul McCartney we get in the documentary is of him leaving court after dissolving the Beatles and getting in a car.

So… no Ram, but plenty of clips of John Lennon, including his immaturely gleeful rehearsal of “How Do You Sleep?” and other Imagine era stuff. And plenty of coverage of George and the Concert for Bangladesh. But… no Ram. And given what we now know, that not only is Ram a great album (which can only strengthen the original 1971 thesis) but was deliberately landed with a poor review because the pathetic infant in charge of Rolling Stone magazine decided that Paul needed to be punished for breaking up the Beatles, it’s a glaring and telling omission.

I’m not saying this is a BLARING KLAXON of a problem, or that the series is entirely invalid because of leaving out Ram. What is clear, however, is that the music pre-selected for this series around which to build its narrative has been viewed through a particular lens. And that lens is still to a very large extent the Rolling Stone magazine / wider music press perception of what constitutes Worthy or Significant music. To qualify, the music needs to be political, controversial, and Meaningful with a capital M. Which, fine, but then tell me again about Marc Bolan and Elton John, and David Bowie and Alice Cooper and why they’re more political, controversial, and Meaningful than Paul McfuckingCartney.

In other words, if you try to puzzle out why some stuff gets included and some stuff doesn’t, there’s still this feeling that, beneath it all, under all the layers of political significance and newsreel based lyric videos, is Jann Wenner sulking because he thinks Paul broke up The Beatles. And it seems to me that in a series this ambitious, with this budget, that you shouldn’t be falling back on hoary old rock critic kneejerk nonsense.

Which leads me into the next problem, because for some reason the artist who seems to be elevated in this series above all others (including John Lennon, not just Paul McCartney) is not the most gifted musician of the 20th century who was at the top of his powers in 1971, but David Bowie. I have to issue a little ugh here.

And, okay, leaving my own opinions and tastes aside, the album Bowie released in 1971 was Hunky Dory, which does contain a few of his iconic, long-lasting songs. Which is to say, two or three tracks that I’ve actually heard (of), not that they’re particularly political or Significant. But even Hunky Dory isn’t Ziggy Stardust, right? And Ziggy Stardust was not 1971, which doesn’t stop the producers spending time on it.

Neither, for that matter, was Exile on Main Street. And the show spends a helluva lot of time on Exile, which was also released in 1972. And almost no time at all on Sticky Fingers, which was the actual album that the actual Rolling Stones released in actual 1971. So the show wants to finish with Bowie coming on stage to perform as Ziggy (in 1972), as if that’s something hugely significant. But an earlier episode had already covered Bolan and T. Rex, and there’s been quite a lot on the Alice Cooper persona, and, I dunno. I know how much Bowie means to Bowie fans (except for those few decades when they weren’t buying his albums or going to his shows), but I don’t think he’s as Significant or original as Lou Reed, or even Marc Bolan, or (whisper it) Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney already did rock-star-pretending-to-be-someone-else-to-make-an-album. In 1967.

Where the show isn’t so muddled is in its coverage of black artists, black politics, and such background events as the trial of Angela Davis, the death of George Jackson, or the Attica Prison riot. There, the documentary felt as if it was on more solid ground, with a stronger thread linking the year and the music. On the other hand, you can’t watch footage of Ike and Tina Turner without taking a sharp intake of breath, and there were other, ahem, problematic artists featured and I suspect some hand-waving at production meetings. No Ram, though.

It was always interesting to watch, and clearly had a budget that set it apart from similar programmes. It felt sometimes like watching a mash-up of all those Friday night BBC4 documentaries we’ve watched over the years. Here’s the bit on Sly and the Family Stone, here’s the bit on John Lennon, here’s the bit on Bowie, the Viet Nam bit, the bit on Carole King, the bit on James Brown, the bit on Pete Townshend playing with synth loops. But whether it hangs together and has, in the end, a thesis, let alone a convincing narrative? I don’t think so. In the end, it’s an excuse to play some great newsreel footage with some quite good music. Along with – for me – some fairly average music. Elton. Bowie. Bill Withers. Alice Cooper.

I’d have preferred, I think, a less muddled, more straightforward, chronological approach. Just start in January and cover the major news events with the music that we being released at the time, and some commentary, perhaps as a reaction to that event or that music. Or, you know, let the music speak for itself. Somewhat prosaic, maybe, but at least it would have made some kind of sense. Even the title itself, The Year that Music Changed Everything is completely unconvincing. It made me nostalgic for that Tony Palmer series from the 1970s, it really did. In the end, David Hepworth has a lot to answer for, but more importantly, the heritage rock people need to reassess their ossified view of what signified, and what matters, and what still stands up, fifty years on.

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