IT’S 1974, you’re a teenager or in your early 20s, and keen to hear new sounds. Well, tough, this time ain’t for you. You should have been born earlier.
It was particularly cruel because the sixties had it all, and now the inevitable comedown was kicking in. If Elton John, The Osmonds, Sweet, The Bay City Rollers and Gary Glitter didn’t tease out those pennies, there wasn’t much else to eye up. By the end of 1974, the Dolls had split up, T.Rex was fading and Bowie was in a transitional phase.
The rut had begun five years before: the era of love, psychedelia, poetry and hippiedom era had come to an end. The Beatles and The Velvet Underground are winding up, The Small Faces are no more, Cream have gone the same way. Before 1971 had even ended, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix would both be six foot under. Syd Barrett had ‘retired’ and The Kinks would soon become theatrical rock-art dandies. The Who and The Quo were now ripped jeans, badly permed full-on rock stars, and the halcyon days of Motown were now a memory.
That opening year of the decade had, nevertheless, promised so much with several great albums, by The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, The Doors, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett (two), The Kinks, The Stooges and Curtis Mayfield. Edwin Starr was fighting war, and Bob Marley and the Wailers were emerging as bona fide talent.
By the following year such top-drawer albums were becoming fewer and fewer and as the decade wore on glam rock, prog rock, folk, novelty acts and the big-is-better acts such as Elton and a Diamond-loving Floyd were stifling the airwaves and the likes of John Martyn, Free, Yes, Stevie Wonder and Lynard Skynard seemed to typify the confusion and lack of direction of the music industry. For those who don’t like music, 1974 was a good year.
And yet there were pockets of real inspiration that the future punks and art rockers would be buying up on Saturday afternoons: Bowie, Roxy, T.Rex, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Sparks and roots reggae acts from Jamaica, far too numerous to mention but Gregory Isaacs, Linval Thompson, Johnny Clarke, I Roy and Big Youth are a start.
And beyond the illumination of these groundbreakers was a burgeoning underground that would, in a sub-conscious way perhaps, pave the way for a new era, the hazy, crazy year of punk and the myriad sub-genres it would spawn to fuel the music industry for at least a decade.
Among these were the art school acts, although not all actually tended art school, such as Captain Beefheart, Can, John Cale, Peter Hammill, who’s Nadir’s Big Chance was a big influence on an impressionable John Lydon; pub rock which brought back the energy and interaction that was generally missing at venues, and the crassly-termed Krautrock species that was coming out of the industrial heart of Germany and epitomised by Neu!, Harmonia, Cluster and, of course, Kraftwerk. Their records generally sold in small amounts, but they were sold to the right people. There was nothing quite as impressive as a dandy on a bicycle carrying on his arm into sixth form a copy of Tago Mago.
A plethora of retrospective compilations have highlighted the obscure, the undervalued and the demented of the pre-punk era, as if these were what all the would-be punks and new wavers were listening to. The reality is a little skewed. Take for example, Punk 45: After the Love and Before The Revolution, a highly worthy effort that brings together unreleased and barely released singles and demos from the years prior to punk. The issue with connecting this to punk is that no-one in England would have heard Oklahoma’s Debris and their sole release Static Disposal, despite its 1976 up-and-at-’em sound, nor would anyone have heard the stock of demo tapes by the confrontational, nasty and briefly burning Electric Eels, though judging by the various contemporary issues, they damn well should have.
Our knowledge of the era is being shaped by a new zeal for mining for talent: a documentary called A Band Called Death revisits a pivotal American band who didn’t even get to the barcode stage; Oil City Confidential likewise reveals the Canvey Island sound of Dr Feelgood in pictures, and Dirty Water is the de rigeur double album of the underground sounds of the time (and the decade before it).
By 1976 the world was on the cusp: Ramones’ first was in the shops, dub was in the clubs the few punks around attended, and guitar and bass were being ‘appropriated’ as teenagers discovered they didn’t need to go to rock school to learn the basics.
And let’s not forget The Flamin’ Groovies a band who, in one record, could blend in all the best of rock’n’roll, blues, and r’n’b and make it sound fresh. But don’t just let me lecture you, rake around for Teenage Head, a true classic from 1971.
I write this as I listen to Hawkwind, a band I had dismissed as hippie prog rockers, in fact, you can detect a sense of pushing the boundaries and wanting to make music for yourself. Now, wasn’t that what the punks liked doing?