Okay boomers, here’s a question to keep you occupied for hours and hours: What was the most important year in the history of pop music?
Before you wander off on tangents of personal pieties about music legends, concerts and the album that changed your life, there’s a strong argument to be made about the correct answer to that question. It’s in a new, eight-part series. And it will divide, annoy or amaze people of all ages.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (AppleTV+) is a cornucopia of information, footage, music and digressions. It offers an education to people of all ages and generations and, in truth, that “okay boomers” reference isn’t fair; none of those lazily made labels – “Gen Z,” “Gen X” – are fair. They’re ridiculously American-centric.
There’s nothing lazy about the series, and its full title should be noted. Based on the book 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year, by David Hepworth – the series pivots on the assertion that pop music changed from a genre about teenage heartbreak and unrequited love to a political force. Not that the creation of this force was planned or that it ever became streamlined, but it seeped into the broader culture in a way that was unique.
The first voice we hear is that of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who is reminiscing about Neil Young writing the song Ohio after the Kent State shootings in 1970. That’s as good a hook as any to begin with. Pop music began to be about what was happening on the streets and in politics. Also, in that first episode, there’s a hint of the later assertion that 1971 was crucial in the advancement of pop music as art – David Bowie is heard saying, “We were creating the 21st century in 1971.”
There is a great deal of coverage, with never-before-seen footage, of the end of the Beatles and the beginning of John Lennon’s solo career. Plenty of attention is given to George Harrison’s all-star concert for Bangladesh (the segment features a very young Geraldo Rivera reporting for local TV news in New York City), and what looms over it all is the war in Vietnam. There’s a fascinating tale about anti-war activists breaking into an FBI office on the night Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. And an unmissable clip of the Ray Conniff Singers performing for Richard Nixon at the White House, with the performance interrupted by one of the singers, Canadian Carole Feraci, unfurling a banner and saying, “Mr. President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation.”
A thing to keep in mind if you’re tempted to watch this truly fascinating journey is to note that it’s not starry-eyed nostalgia. It’s blunt about the horrific impact of drugs on ordinary people and key performers. In one late episode, we see uncomfortable footage of Sly and the Family Stone appearing on The Dick Cavett Show and know from a voice-over reminiscence that Sly, at that point, couldn’t perform without being high on heroin. He performs I Want to Take You Higher with scary gusto, then wanders off and is incoherent when Cavett tries to interview him.
Anyone who follows the narrative of pop music closely knows what was released in 1971: The Who’s Who’s Next, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Carole King’s Tapestry, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The series touches on these landmarks but goes deeper and finds both menace and an abundance of meaning in how entertainment, politics and art became uncannily aligned in projects that were begun in 1971 and completed later. The menace is the spectre of death in drug use; the meaning is in the often-odd alliances that were made.
It’s an eye-opening, mind-bending journey for anyone of any age to digest. But discuss it among yourselves. Me, my memories of 1971 involve footage of riots, bombings, internment without trial and a rage in the air in Ireland that my young mind didn’t fully understand. This series doesn’t go there enough, but watching it was diverting and instructive, as it provided a context that was once elusive.
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