The 1970s is one of the most critically and academically appraised (Western) pop musical decades – but, considering its diversity, with progressive rock at one end of the spectrum and punk at the other, there’s plenty of the grist to the mill. Still, you’d hope a new book on the subject would offer a fresh, or a particularly incisive, take.
The subheading to Tony Wellington’s Vinyl Dreams – How the 1970s changed music – at least suggests some attempt to extrapolate coherency from the tumult of various questing musical spirits.
Unfortunately, and frustratingly, it doesn’t really manage to do so in a particularly rigorous or compelling way. Instead, it feels hamstrung by its approach, one that struggles to take on the vast gamut of music of the era. While plodding year-by-year through the decade, it picks up – then drops – thematic strands without fully coming to terms with them.
This undermines an attempt to get to grips with important issues like the misogyny endemic to the era – to take one example – when it touches briefly on such artists as the all-female hard rock band Fanny in 1970, then Dee Dee McNeil on The Watts Prophets’ Rappin’ Black in a White World in 1971 a few pages later.
Elsewhere, a line identifying Led Zeppelin as ‘global masters of heavy rock [who] were also brazen plagiarists, particularly of American blues artists’ alludes to the legacy of cultural appropriation in the development of white rock and heavy metal, without really exploring it in great detail here or at any other point (including how it may have been dialled up to 11 in the 1970s).
Still, the book offers a hazily evocative description of the 70s and it at least will be an opportunity to revisit, or become introduced to, some wonderful music of the era, particularly underground/alternative examples, which are not habitually thrashed by classic rock radio.
But even just taken as a list of impactful music, it can be annoyingly imprecise.
A reason for this can probably be found in the author’s “Prelude” statement in which he understandably admits to having being “selective” to avoid a massive page count. This may explain why, for example, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is described as a ‘seminal album’, without really explaining how or why.
However, the shorthand can also feel a bit careless. For example, Van Halen, one of the more influential artists, for better or worse, on the next decade of US music, is described as a band for whom ‘leather was emblematic’, which seems to align them with a strand of heavy metal that wasn’t really their Californian pop-rock metier.
And while it is fair game to talk about their song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in the context of Led Zeppelin’s repeated plagiarism (often without credit) elsewhere, saying they ‘appear to have purloined the opening guitar instrumental from American band Spirit’s “Taurus”,’ but failing to mention that both singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page denied these accusations and that they ultimately won a copyright case on the subject in 2020 (with seismic impacts on the music industry) is oddly misleading.
Lastly, there’s also a tendency to force an Australian perspective – giving it a weirdly semi-parochial vibe – along with editorialising unmoored from any larger point(s), which contributes to a slight sense of lived experience, but not much more.
It’s particularly frustrating because the author’s personal preferences hint at a book that could’ve brought something quite fresh. Specifically, he’s willing to challenge the orthodoxy of attitudes toward cultural behemoths like Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and James Brown – albeit in a limited way (it describes the latter’s ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ as a ‘dull, repetitive slice of funk’ with ‘stupid lyrics’).
In this respect the book finds most substance in the author’s appreciation of so-called progressive – ‘prog’ – rock.
Emphasising musical virtuosity while fusing elements like classical and jazz music, this oft-maligned genre is typically defined in terms of how it frames the antithetical punk movement.
But the author personally comes into bat for it, explicitly saying: ‘I don’t accept that music, which attempted to stretch the boundaries of rock, and which was complex and even challenging for the listeners, was necessarily self-indulgent.’ Artists that can be lumped into the prog category like Frank Zappa and the underground pioneers Pere Ubu are given some light and love – and the book is particularly effective when speaking in depth about Robert Wyatt’s sublime Rock Bottom.
If Vinyl Dreams had focused a bit more on reclaiming progressive music from its critics, perhaps within the context of its time, place and influence, to persuasively argue its case, it would’ve been the basis of an interesting, and ironically very rebelliously punk, book. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have anything like that sort of focus, which means it ends up – as per the accusation levelled at a lot of ‘prog’ albums – a bit half-baked.
Vinyl Dreams, Tony Wellington
Publisher: Monash University
Publication date: June 2023