Who let 1972 back into the room? Or 1971? Or 1973, for that matter? Rock music’s darkest days have become the model for a new crop of hipsters, most of themof courseBritish. The latest albums from Richard Ashcroft, Ian Brown, the Catherine Wheel, and maybe even Radioheadalthough no matter how spacey that band gets, it always sounds like R.E.M. to medefiantly evoke the post-Beatles, pre-Ramones era.
Of course, these revivalists are also influenced by subsequent styles. Their music has a crossover crunch that was scarce in those days, when rock was soft, metal was hard, and dance music had yet to discover the slambeat. Britain’s electro-ambient-techno-rave fixation has infiltrated the ’70s-revival sound, as is especially obvious on Ian Brown’s latest album, which bears the ironically retro title Golden Greats. Still, all of this music takes me back. And to a place I don’t especially want to go.
The U.K. obsession with the early ’70s can partially be excused, because Brit music had a better early ’70s than did its American equivalent. (This is a bit unfair, of course, because Brits were responsible for lots of the bad music Americans heard in the period.) It’s interesting how many British films that aren’t set in the 1971-1975 period nonetheless employ pop songs from that epoch. The Full Monty did, and so does the upcoming Billy Elliot, which sets the Thatcher-vs.-the-miners battles of the mid-’80s to T. Rex’s early-’70s glitterbeat.
A tendency becomes a trend when it steps on your toes, and mine have been bruised repeatedly in recent months by early-’70s revisionists. Technically, that includes Remember the Titans, which purports to be about my high school in 1971, even if most of its details are more 1961. More to the point of this column, however, is Almost Famous, a sanitized history of circa-1973 rock. Director Cameron Crowe, who profiled such bands as Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, and the Eagles for Rolling Stone in the early to mid-’70s, offers an idealized Top 40 sampler of the period’s music, eliminating most of the bombast, self-indulgence, and sheer hatefulnessas well as nearly all the dippy tunes that were actually being played on Top 40 radio at the time. (One devastating rebuke to Almost Famous would simply be a copy of Have a Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box, the shag-carpet-boxed seven-CD set of tacky ’70s hits.)
To Crowe, it was all good, even the lives of the groupies shamefully abused by rockers stoned on drugs, booze, and their power to manipulate. This depiction ducks the question of why so many peopleincluding one depicted in the film, Lester Bangswanted to destroy early-’70s rock. It’s no coincidence that Crowe retired from music journalism around the same time that John Lydon wrote “I Hate” on a Pink Floyd T-shirt. It took Rolling Stone years to come to grips with punk, the skunk at the garden party depicted in Almost Famous. As for Crowe, he fled back to high school to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The early ’70s stood for many disquieting developments in rock music, from concept albums to quaaludes. What Ashcroft, Brown, and their ilk evoke, however, is one of the era’s greatest plagues: the solo record. In those days, though, it was a little different. Everybody could make a solo album, from the drummer or bassist who occasionally wrote a change-of-pace song for his band to the popular backup singer or session player. (Remember Nicky Hopkins’ solo album? Remember Nicky Hopkins?) These days, it’s usually frontmen and principal songwriters who get the solo callwhich is a bit more efficient.
Efficiency, in fact, is what distinguishes the early-’70s revival from the genuine early-’70s music that would have derailed any candid version of Almost Famous. Ashcroft’s Alone With Everybody faithfully evokes 1972 by uniting rock, soul, country, and baroque-pop tendencies, and even includes such tattered psychedelic phrases as “the magic beauty of your fragile mind.” Yet the melodies are reliable and the arrangements focused, even when overrun with strings. The album, in fact, is more consistent than any Ashcroft made with the Verve.
That’s not how solo albums used to workor not workbut 2000 just isn’t as indulgent as 1973. Even the many bands that have returned to prog-rock precedentsamong them Sunny Day Real Estate, Cave In, and Porcupine Treeare careful to keep their songs shapely and direct. Hüsker Dü made more double albums than any contemporary prog revivalist would dare.
Despite Crowe’s golden memories, today’s rockers aren’t merely reviving early-’70s rock. They’re also editing the music (and its attitudes), adjusting for shorter attention spans, streamlining its more meandering tendencies. In short, doing what the band that ended Almost Famous’ idyll did to ’60s rock. Cameron Crowe, meet the Ramones. Mark Jenkins
Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.