Thursday, 23 October 2014

The 1970s: Golden Years, or should we Look Back In Anger?

I’ve been spreading some nostalgia about the place on Facebook over the past week or so. In particular I have busied myself by designing memes, essentially through the simple expedient of adding thoughtful slogans to photographs which have either been lifted from the web or borrowed from my own hard drive.

As I’ve said many times before I have a real weakness for the 1970s, in particular for the period around 1976. But as well as giving pleasure to many my recent activities have aroused hostile emotions amongst some, who seem to look back to that decade with an extraordinary sense of bitterness.

Perhaps not entirely without reason, the unbelievers point to the ignorance of its social attitudes, its political extremism, its violence, its hijackings, its industrial unrest, its shortages, its Cold War fought all across the globe by proxy, the absurdity (to many) of its fashion and culture – and, more recently, of the unspoken sexual depravity of too many of its key personalities which was not to emerge into the gaze of daylight until, in some cases, 35 years or so later. Looking back, I’m rather relieved that I didn’t join Gary’s gang.


Nostalgia’s beauty and its weakness both lie in the fact that we tend to see the past through rose-tinted spectacles. The power of romance is so immense that for many of us it trumps any amount of adversity. Although like any other teenager I spent much of the 1970s in a state of fear, in anxiety, in conflict and in sorrow the simple fact is that I remember nothing about that period that was not steeped in pure joy. At least, that was, until the last few years of the decade, when I completely went off the rails and lost touch entirely with the spirit of the ‘70s while others were enjoying its final throes to the sound of the Bee Gees or post-Pistols New Wave, according to their fancy.

It is pointless trying to make the case for the seventies over modernity on technical grounds, far less on diversity. Television was three channels (although the dial on our TV sets always seemed to have about thirty settings – futuristic or what?) and they all finished at around 10.30 in the evening when the more traditionally patriotic of viewers would stand to attention for the National Anthem. The service then continued with a small spot of light on the screen and a white noise for the benefit of those who couldn’t be bothered to get up and switch it off.

The telephone was fixed to the wall and to speak to another person involved a multi-part operation in which the dial was turned several times (assuming the neighbours who shared the party line were not on the ‘phone) and the person on the other end, if at home, would then answer. No mobile telephones, no texting, no voicemail, no saved address book, and certainly no e-mail. If you didn’t know the other person’s telephone number though help was close at hand, with a telephone directory the size of an encyclopedia containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of more or less everybody in the hemisphere.


Then of course there was the telephone box, at least one of which was always only a short walk away, and the (also bright red) post box for sending letters, a far more important medium then than today in the absence of home computer technology.

Out on the street, whilst the gun crime that we see today was almost non-existent and confined where it did exist to discreet closed-door gangland feuds, small-time violence was always in the air. Platform shoes did not deter any lad from kicking seven bells out of another upon the slightest provocation, and yet nobody ever seemed to get seriously hurt. Football thuggery was on every spartan, overcrowded terrace, but had not yet achieved the sophistication of the besuited and post-adolescent knife gangs of the 1980s and beyond. One could walk around a football ground in pursuit of “aggro” – little silk scarf tied to the wrist, flares flapping in the cold winter wind. Much swearing and pointing, against a sumptuous backdrop of heavily fried onions amassed upon cheap hot dogs. Everybody went home in one piece.

In the wider world everything seemed to have broken down. Strikes and more strikes, refuse piled up in the streets, power cuts and three-day weeks due to lack of fuel. Wars were being fought in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas – always the same, with regional quarrels fought over regional issues but with one side inevitably being “Russian backed” and the other “US backed”. Two superpowers, each too cautious to confront the other in open combat, using their little brothers to settle their playground squabbles.

But it was in film and music that the 1970s stood out for me, and much of it was pretty simple stuff. There was some hugely creative material around too – Mike Oldfield had unleashed Tubular Bells upon an unsuspecting but unexpectedly grateful public and Bowie was setting every trend for the decade and beyond. But the glam era was innocent, lots of fun, flamboyant and competitive. I recall the unspoken contest that seemed to be taking place between Gary Glitter and Elton John, when each would appear on Top of the Pops in a more highly-stacked pair of platform boots than the other had done on the last occasion. In any other era they would have seemed ridiculous, as indeed would we in our multi-coloured loon pants and tank tops, luminous socks and wide-awake butterfly collars, but it was a flippant dress code for a flippant age. Nobody could parody us or our musical heroes, for we parodied ourselves.

Alongside glam came disco, but as befits the 1970s it was a different type of disco to anything that came before or since. George McCrae, Van McCoy, Candi Staton, Barry White – each played their part in leaving a lasting imprint on that magical age.


When the music I loved and from which I drew comfort did take its bow as the decade ploughed relentlessly on towards its dotage, young people began to turn to wild extremes, marching and counter-marching. Politics seemed to define everything in the later seventies once the musical and cultural pack had been shuffled and the new bands had stepped up to take their turn in the limelight. There was an ugliness about the whole thing, and a sense that the magic spell was soon to unravel forever.

The critics go so wrong when they sneer upon the values – part innocence, part ignorance – that informed our 1970s way of life. The humour was unsanitised, our trust in our cult figures naïve, our empathy with the less fortunate patchy and incomplete. But we weren’t being serious. We were just having fun. The whole ethos of the 1970s was, for us, about not taking ourselves too seriously and having loads of fun. And we did it in a way and in a style that has never nearly been rivalled by any subsequent generation.

The 1970s had a cast and a playlist that reads like a veritable Role of Honour. Long hair, Pan’s People, Mivvi lollies, Stewpot, Concorde, glam rock, Look-In, Steve Harley, Georgie Best, Green Shield stamps, platform shoes and loon pants, the Capri Ghia, Rollermania, Morecambe and Wise, CB radio, Chopper bicycles, Dial-a-disc, lollipops and candy cheroots, Angel Delight, Ziggy Stardust, Oxford Bags, milk machines, The Hustle, Starsky and Hutch, pinball, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, The Goodies, Pomagne at the fairground, tank tops, Top of the Pops, Radio Luxembourg, Evel Knievel, watch out there’s a Humphrey about, Candid Camera, the glorious summer of ’76. The streets were dark but we strutted them without fear, the youth clubs were church halls with table-tennis tables and paint that crumbled. It didn’t have to be smart, practical or politically correct. It didn’t even have to make any sense. It was raw, it was barren, at times it was bleak. But it was our time.

For those of us who are of a certain age the spirit of the seventies came not from what was provided for us. It came from within us. It came from the age we were at the time and the experiences we all went through together. That is why it is futile to look down upon it with disdain from the ivory tower of the age in which we live today.

Those who truly feel the spirit of the seventies will understand me when I say it never leaves you. Periodically something is said in conversation or posted on the web that invokes that inner sense which cannot be put into words. For those who look back to the 1970s with sadness I feel pity. For good or for bad, there will never be its like again.


Anonymous said...

A real Tour de Force Phil if I might say. I hope to see more retro material from you because it is more interesting that the politics and other stuff, well to me at least :)

envelope said...

Yes an interesting new departure but please mix it up and don't concentrate solely on nostalgic material.