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The Brilliant 1970s 2006-08-10

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Humanities.

‘Summer of 1976’ An article by Howard Sounes in ‘The Scotsman’:

It was during the heatwave of 1976, when the country was parched and the economy on its knees, that punk rock was born.

Over the subsequent 30 years, the United Kingdom has become ever richer, hotter and drier, and the 1970s have been dismissed absurdly as “the decade that taste forgot”. In fact, the years 1970/79 were packed with exciting and stylish works of art, classic movies and records, great books, important architecture and revolutionary television. The spirit of innovation that hallmarked the 1960s continued into the new age, tempered by a more severe political and economic climate.

There were a record 1.5 million unemployed in 1976, inflation was high, the pound weak, while the American Empire reeled from defeat in Vietnam and the shame of Watergate. Out of this miasma came punk. The crucible of the new music was ‘The 100 Club’ in London’s Oxford Street.

In this tiny basement venue John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) led his fellow ‘Sex Pistols’ in manic tribal rituals of music and pogo-dancing, an underground legend long before the general public had heard of any of them.

As the summer wore on, and the Pistols’ reputation grew, the shabbiness and poverty of the United Kingdom became ever more apparent, particularly in the great cities such as Glasgow, London and Edinburgh. Parks were baked to dust and the unclouded sky revealed the dilapidation of docks, scabs of wasteland and derelict buildings infested with squatters.

In spite of the urban decay, there was a terrific atmosphere of creativity. The Pistols were born under the wing of two style leaders, after all: Malcolm McLaren (son of a Scotsman) and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, who dressed the boys from their legendary London boutique, ‘Sex’, garments that were the avant-garde of 1976 fashion, and are now design classics.

McLaren eventually split from Westwood; he now lives in Paris and has less of an impact on our cultural scene, but Westwood’s unique take on British fashion has endured and expanded — and she herself, made a Dame by the Queen, is now very much part of the Establishment she was rebelling against 30 years ago.

God Save The Queen]With the clothes and the lyrics in place, McLaren’s art school pal, Jamie Reid, gave the Sex Pistols’ album and single covers a distinctive graphic style, with the “ransom-letter” typography he pioneered and used on his neon-coloured collages: he tore the eyes out of a Cecil Beaton portrait of the Queen, and put a safety-pin through her lip, a visual statement which shocked the world and disgusted most Britons over the age of 30.

Punk would reach its momentum a year later in the summer of 1977, but, meanwhile, disco music was coming into its own, having arrived here from the nightclubs of America. David Bowie, a folk hero to the punks, went on the road in ’76 promoting an album that had dramatically moved away from his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ persona. The slick ‘Station to Station’ was the LP that spawned the slick, ubercool dance hit ‘Golden Years’. With this song, Bowie introduced his new mid-1970s persona, that of ‘The Thin White Duke’: a narcissistic faux aristocrat inspired by his interest in the chillier reaches of German culture.

[picture of Bowie & Rotten]This was also the year in which Bowie proved himself to be a natural screen actor, starring as a lonely alien in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Directed by Nic Roeg, this 1976 picture may be the most rewarding science-fiction film of the decade, offering a profound take on time, space and the nature of humanity.

It was a golden age of cinema, thanks to the big Hollywood studios giving unusually free reign to a young generation of directors. One of the finest examples to come out of this era was Martin Scorsese‘s violent and troubling ‘Taxi Driver’. It made a star of the young method actor Robert De Niro, thanks to his coruscating performance as the deranged and homicidal ‘Travis Bickle’, and also gave her first adult role to the previously tomboyish child actress Jodie Foster, here playing a streetwise but vulnerable 13-year-old prostitute.

Francis Ford Coppola directed what is arguably his best film, combining the central theme of Joseph Conrad‘s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ with the fallout from the Vietnam war to produce the amazing ‘Apocalypse Now’, shooting on which began in 1976. It was so long in the making that, when the film was finally released in 1979, it was already a legend.

[Picture of Norman Mailer]Writers who stood tall in 1976 included Norman Mailer, whose account of the killing spree of an American convict named Gary Gilmore would become a classic work of New Journalism. In the summer of 1976, Gilmore shot dead two innocent men in Utah and made himself a cause célèbre by insisting on the death penalty when he was convicted. The death penalty had been newly reinstated that year in the USA: when given a choice of facing either a firing squad or death by hanging, Gilmore said, “I’d rather be shot”.

[Picture of Gary Gilmour]As his last request, Gilmore stated that, following his execution, he wanted his eyes to be used for transplant purposes. Within hours of his death, two patients received his corneas. Gilmore’s philanthropic last act inspired punk band ‘The Adverts’ to write and release a single, ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’, a few months later, and Mailer’s literary account of the saga, ‘The Executioner’s Song’, won a ‘Pulitzer Prize’ in 1979.[Picture of The Adverts' Gary Gilmour's Eyes cover]

Amid a sea of mediocre British comedy and sitcoms and cheesy American cop shows, groundbreaking TV in the mid-1970s was brought to us by the brilliant, surreal and subversive ‘Monty Python’ team. There was a shared belief among all the Pythons that they should avoid traditional comedy formats. As Graham Chapman said: ‘We were fed up with the traditional, well-shaped sketch, the beginning, the middle and the inevitable punch-line.”

In 1976, the Pythons were on tour in the USA, delivering their bizarre slapstick humour to a gleeful audience of Americans. In a truly historical moment, ex-‘Beatle’ George Harrison joined ‘The Pythons’ on stage in New York to perform ‘The Lumberjack Song’.

Here then was the true spirit of the 1970s, a difficult decade politically, but one in which creative people flourished and made work that enriched our world enormously. Look at the legacy of the people described here, and you will have to agree that it continues to do so.

The lighter side of ’76


1976 produced its fair share of great films. ‘Rocky’ stormed the Oscars, while in the horror genre, Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ chilled to the bone high-school pupils across the world. Meanwhile, ‘The Omen’ did the same to new parents. Cheese-tastic rock movie ‘A Star is Born’, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kirstofferson, was also popular. ‘Network’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ were also screened for the first time this year. For many, though, the highlight of 1976’s moviemaking was ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, which won Jack Nicholson a Best Actor ‘Oscar’.


The year the VHS was first introduced also saw some of the country’s finest TV comedies. ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘The Good Life’, ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ all featured in the schedules, while Mike Leigh, a promising young film-maker, exploded on to the screen with ‘Nuts in May’, a sparkling satire about camping holidays. ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ also debuted that year, as did ‘Open All Hours’. Meanwhile, ‘The Sex Pistols’ popped up to swear at presenter Bill Grundy on teatime telly. Charming.


Abba threatened to dominate 1976 — the band earning no fewer than three No 1s in the UK alone — but it was also the year when punk was born, most significantly when ‘The Sex Pistols’ signed to ‘EMI’. Bands such as ‘The Clash’, ‘Black Flag’, ‘The Ramones’, ‘The Jam’, ‘The Damned’, ‘The Cure’ and ‘Iron Maiden’ all came together for the first time, while Stevie Wonder hit a career high when he signed a 13 million USD contract with ‘Motown Records’. ‘Bay City Rollers’ Mania, below, reached a peak in Edinburgh that summer, while in September of ’76, a band called ‘Feedback’ formed in Dublin. They later became ‘U2’.


Literature said goodbye to one of its greatest crime writers when, on 12 January, Agatha Christie died, aged 85. Saul Bellow won ‘The Nobel Prize for Literature’, while David Storey’s ‘Saville’ won ‘The Booker’, and Scotland’s own Muriel Spark published one of her less well-known novels, ‘The Takeover’. But perhaps the biggest literary change that year came in adolescent literature thanks to the American author Judy Blume, whose sexually explicit novel ‘Forever’, published the previous year, had radically moved the goalposts on what was acceptable fiction for teens.


Popart was popular in 1976, with Andy Warhol still a huge presence. ‘Portrait of Maurice’ and ‘Cow’ were both painted that year, while Warhol’s increasing paranoia and alienation from his Factory clique was captured on film by Michel Auder in the haunting art movie ‘Andy Warhol and the Chelsea Girls’.



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