Thursday 21 September 2006

Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade

Howard Sounes

Amusingly stupid, vulgar, a time of endearingly foolish fashions. These views - according to the book’s author - represent the consensus thinking of cultural pundits when it comes to evaluating the 1970s. How well does he refute them? Does he show that the culture of the Seventies provided something worthwhile? Or was it just Chopper bikes and Showaddywaddy, flares and hair?

Some of the ground that Sounes covers is stuff that gives the lie to the sort of lazy group thinking that he condemns. It’s also familiar territory: the rise of Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and glam rock are familiar to most commentators on not only this period, but on the history of pop, fashion and sexuality in general. Sounes seems unenthusiastic about glam rock although, to be fair, many (predominantly male) critics tend to circumnavigate it somewhat gingerly: he refers to Bowie’s success as heralding a ‘glamorous era where narcissistic individualism was sexy’, but surely the same charge could be levelled against the Rolling Stones as they commenced their climb to fame?

The rise of punk and the Sex Pistols is also well-trodden ground: Sounes rightly punctures the tunnel-vision pretensions they often arouse by reminding us that disco was the dominant pop and hip musical form of the decade due to its adoption by gays, its emergence into the straight world, and the success of the film Saturday Night Fever. Amusingly, he reminds us that Lou Reed, whilst making his 1972 album Transformer, lived in Wimbledon, not an area one immediately associates with would-be Warhol Factory movie stars, transvestitism and the other topics of this New York-themed work. More seriously, he shows that it took courage for Bowie to go public about his sexuality and that, rather surprisingly, he was well-regarded for doing so by some of his working-class male fans.

Sounes is on more interesting ground when dealing with the visual. He reminds us that the Seventies was an era when Hollywood took financial risks in creating dark films like Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, which would be inconceivable today, as well as taking us through the titanic struggles often involved in their making. (However, it should be remembered that Hollywood had already been dealing with the less attractive side of human life by way of film noir, although the genre’s offerings such as The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity were doubtless made with the box-office primarily in mind.) The Seventies was an era of films such as Day of the Jackal and The Godfather, based on blockbuster novels, which then also became hits. Yet ironically it was the success of one such film - Jaws - that set the tone for empty, formulaic blockbuster movies that could be marketed with overloaded hype and spin-off promotions, mass fodder for the multiplexes.

But those who wanted their pictures to be unsettling could - until her suicide in 1971 - also turn to the work of the New York-based photographer Diane Arbus, famous for her shots of America’s dark underbelly. Among her subjects was Germaine Greer, who was less than enthusiastic about the photographer’s warts-and-all approach to her craft. ‘If she’d been a man I’d have kicked her in the balls,’ said Professor Greer, showing a concern for her appearance more reminiscent of Dame Edna than of the author of The Female Eunuch. Andy Warhol’s work of this period - such as self-portraits and still-lifes - was felt by some to be too commercial, but critics forgot that he was a commercial artist by background. Sounes reminds us of Warhol’s well-heeled but eremitic home life and that - perhaps due to his Catholicism - he saw his art as a transient thing not to be taken too seriously, two aspects of the artist’s life which arguably deserve further study.

Every book such as this runs the risk of omitting material that some devotees of the era in question feel should have been mentioned. Sounes would doubtless reply - rightly - that not everything can be included. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that some things were excluded as they reflected the social attitudes, expectations and experiences against which the culture of the decade was played out.

Take some television programmes. The sit-com Man About The House, set in London’s bedsit land, showed an era when your early twenties were about carefree hedonism, not worry over tuition fees and mortgages. Another sitcom, Bless This House, showed family life as a good thing, not a minefield of conflict which needed to be patched up with endless dissection by, and intervention from, well-meaning bossy ‘experts’; an over-idealised picture, no doubt, but one to which most of its viewers would have aspired. The Naked Civil Servant - a television biopic about Quentin Crisp starring John Hurt in possibly his most memorable role - arguably did more to change public attitudes to homosexuality than the street antics of militant gay campaigners. Spy series The Sandbaggers - admittedly only starting in 1978 - regularly showed a far more skeptical view of government and its self-serving manipulations than television generally does today.

Whilst not writing a book about politics and social mores, Sounes could, arguably, have done more to flesh out the sociopolitical aspects of the decade which formed the backdrop to its culture: the oil crisis, trade union militancy, economic incompetence, three-day weeks, and early concerns over terrorism. And simultaneously - although class tensions existed - white flight to the suburbs and gentrification in the inner cities (well, London) had yet to seriously exacerbate social tensions within by-and-large homogeneous communities.

This book is not the beginning of the end of stereotyping the Seventies, and this decade will, no doubt, still be the subject of annoying over-simplification. But it should be the end of the beginning, providing not only a useful introduction to its cultural wares, but making us realise that it deserves serious re-evaluation.



Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.