Twelve Songs That Changed the World, or at Least 1971

Jon Foro on June 14, 2016

Amazon Book Review: Never a Dull MomentRock & Roll nostalgia is hot. Since Keith Richards’s Life appeared in 2010 (and set the standard for rock books, by the way), a torrent of biographies, memoirs, and retrospectives have followed in its wake. Many have been excellent: Trouble Boys, Kill ‘Em and Leave, and The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones are just three recent examples, and Never a Dull Moment: 1971: The Year That Rock Exploded by the venerable music journalist David Hepworth continues the hot streak. Hepworth, who was 21 years old in the year of his title, pulls together 12 months of events that closed the Age of Pop (i.e. The Beatles) and ushered in the Age of Rock.

Rather than a fawning run-down of the usual 70s acts—though he does range from Carole King and the Carpenters to Zeppelin and the Stones to Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone, and more--NADM blows up its superficial chronological format into explorations of larger themes: Chapter Two (February) opens with the release of King's monumental album,Tapestry, but quickly grows into a conversation about changing boomer demographics, technology, and the shift toward adult-oriented (and ridiculously lucrative) long-player sales, the model that dominated until the dawn of digital distribution. Chapter Five marks the Stones' Sticky Fingers and their tax-flight into the South of France, but it's also about artists taking control of their own business, evolving from performers (i.e. pawns) into huge international outfits operating (and profiting) on their own terms. Throughout: no less than a dozen mentions of "hot pants." This book is smart, sharply written, and a bit of fun.

Here, out of hundreds of worthy contenders, Hepworth has selected the 12 songs that defined 1971, the year that shaped the music industry's next three decades.

"My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison

Yes, it was released in 1970, but “My Sweet Lord,” the biggest hit any former Beatle had, was dominating charts all over the world at the beginning of 1971. Its success both made and unmade George Harrison, giving him the stature to spearhead the Concert for Bangla Desh in the summer, and attracting an unwelcome lawsuit from the publishers of the Chiffons “He’s So Fine,” who claimed he’d lifted the tune from the earlier song. The judge agreed and George had to hand over all the money “My Sweet Lord” had made.

"You’ve Got A Friend" by James Taylor

When Carole King played her new composition for her songwriting buddies they thought it was missing something. Only James Taylor knew it was already perfect and persuaded her to let him have first crack at it. His version on Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon did well, but King’s version on her own Tapestry did even better, selling 150,000 copies every week in the United States in the summer of 1971 as the new adult albums business boomed.

"Statesboro Blues" by the Allman Brothers Band

The legendary live double-album by the princes of Southern Rock, recorded at New York’s Fillmore East in March, was almost a disaster because the band had brought along an under-rehearsed, out of tune horn section. Engineer Tom Dowd flew into town in time to fire them after the first show, thus allowing the fiery grace of Duane Allman’s guitar to take centre stage. It was Duane’s finest hour. He died later in 1971. He was twenty-four.

"Theme From Shaft" by Isaac Hayes

The soundtrack music for Shaft wasn’t scored; it was improvised. Hayes’ band watched footage of the private eye walking down the street and invented that deathless groove on the spot. Hayes scribbled down the words after eavesdropping on the backing singers looking at Richard Roundtree and cooing approvingly.

"Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones

You’re no longer allowed to even think about the things that this song is about, let alone to sing them at the top of your lungs, as millions of people all over the world did in May 1971 when this was the first release on the band’s own label, where it appeared under the sign of the jutting tongue. The Stones’ lazy, insolent swagger was never better.

"Little Green" by Joni Mitchell

Joni had written confessional songs before but Blue took it to another level. She described it was being “like an x-ray”. “Songs are like tattoos,” she sang on the title track. Nonetheless it took another twenty-five years for the world to realise “Little Green” was about the child she had given up for adoption when she was still trying to make her name.

"Maggie May" by Rod Stewart

Many of the timeless hits of 1971 happened by accident. "Maggie May" was just a studio vamp with a title borrowed from an old song about a Liverpool prostitute. It wasn’t supposed to be on the album. It wasn’t even the A-side of the single until a DJ in Cleveland flipped it. Forty-five years later Rod Stewart still has to sing it on stage every night.

"Watching The River Flow" by Bob Dylan

Dylan didn’t put out a proper album in 1971 but his Greatest Hits Vol II, with its cover picture of him at the Bangla Desh show and this Leon Russell-produced barrelhouse rocker among the previously unreleased tracks, would go on to be the best-selling album of his entire career.

"Life On Mars?" by David Bowie

In the year 1971 David Bowie released The Man Who Sold The World, recorded and released Hunky Dory (from which this song came) and then recorded all but one track of the next one, Ziggy Stardust. If all we knew about David Bowie was what he did in 1971 we would know enough.

"Superstar" by Carpenters

The song, which was originally called "Groupie," had been written about the girls who threw themselves at Joe Cocker’s band during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Richard Carpenter heard Bette Midler sing it on TV and thought it would suit his sister Karen, once the line “to sleep with you again” had been changed to “to be with you again”. The vocal was a first take.

"Baba O’Riley" by the Who

One of the songs rescued from the ill-fated rock opera project Lifehouse, this anthem was named for Pete Townshend’s guru Meher Baba and the avant-garde composer Terry Riley, whose music inspired its electronic opening. This is arguably the greatest rock band of them all at the very height of their powers. When the bass and vocals arrived together at 1:06, rock as a form could be said to have peaked.

"American Pie" by Don McLean

Now that the fifties were more than a decade in the past, the music of that time was suddenly an acceptable subject for nostalgia. “What does it mean?” says Don McLean today. “It means I never have to work again.”

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