SEVENTIES: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade
by Howard Sounes
Simon & Schuster ₤18.99, 472 pages
The conundrum goes something like this: the 1960s were the key postwar decade, impossibly glamorous, consistently creative and sowing seeds of social change that continue to flower today. The 1980s were, culturally speaking, a bore: fascinating if you were interested in monetarism, but full of big, bad songs, movies and haircuts. How ever did we get from one to the other? What do we make of the period of transition, those kaleidoscopic 1970s?
Howard Sounes, in this generally likeable book, aims to correct a misconception. He wants to challenge the consensus, “among journalists and other pundits, that the decade was somehow a rather stupid, indeed vulgar one”. He might have paused to consider that it is the journalism and punditry of today that is rather stupid, indeed vulgar. For it is surely incontrovertible that some of the films made at the beginning of the decade - Taxi Driver or Don’t Look Now, for example - are among the greatest ever, and that popular music enjoyed some of its most substantial triumphs in the 1970s with the Clash and the Rolling Stones.
So Sounes is to a certain extent building up straw men; but any opportunity to celebrate some of popular culture’s most enduring creations is fine by me. Seventies is refreshingly free from excessive theorising, focusing instead on significant personalities and works in short chapters. Sounes has an addiction to tenuous seguing which is irritating at first but then amusing, as if he is sharing an in-joke with you: “There are remarkable similarities between the life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and that of Bob Marley, the
Jamaican who brought reggae music to the world at the same time that the Russian writer was cast into exile.”
The trawl through the decade is an entertaining one: it travels from Jack Nicholson’s famed chicken-salad-sandwich scene from Five Easy Pieces, a fragment that is still obviously infused with the rebelliousness and biting humour of the 1960s, to Woody Allen’s New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1979, beset by Warholian ennui on the one hand and a sense of jubilation on the other: “No more oil crises, no more Irans - the 1970s are dead!” an observer tells The New York Times. If only he had known.
Much of Sounes’s story is familiar enough. He deals principally with the creation of, and background to, popular culture masterpieces such as Blood on the Tracks and Apocalypse Now, although he makes the odd foray into architecture and literature. The disadvantage of his episodic approach is that there is no narrative thread, just a collection of highlights, like one of those unsatisfying greatest hits collections that leave you wishing you had bought the original albums instead.
Notwithstanding the claim of his subtitle, there is little discussion of ideas. A dip into some of the decade’s influential theorists - John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Rorty - would have added some much-needed ballast to the glam-rock parties and pulp movies. There is a tiny bit on the political malaise that was the breeding ground for British punk, but virtually nothing on the energy crisis that had such an effect on western sensibility, fuelling, so to speak, a rush into decadence and subsequent cultural mannerism.
Midway through the book, we neatly reach the midpoint of the decade, the defining moment at which the “mellow hothead introspection” of the 1960s began to make way for the ruthless, accounts-driven 1980s “[when] Hollywood remembered it was in business to make money”. Sounes is relatively unsentimental about the transition, lauding (rather too much for my liking) works such as Jaws and The Day of the Jackal for their populist qualities. The remainder of the decade had a sense of decline about it, from the horrible demise of Sid Vicious to the occasionally grotesque voyeurism of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.
Correctives to the excesses of the 1970s were round the corner: economic recession and Aids. Sounes’s final chapters cannot help having an elegiac feel about them. This is a perfect book for an 18-year-old nephew or niece who loves Johnny Depp and Franz Ferdinand, and wonders what the fuss about the old days is all about.