As 2021 continues to roll on we are faced with the 50th anniversary of some of the biggest records in music history. The 1970s is my favourite decade in music and 1971 is arguably one of the biggest years in music history. Currently, Apple TV has a miniseries on music released in 1971. Coop and I are looking to do a show on the iconic music of 1971, which I believe is being replicated in the Black Lives Matter and violence against women thematic movements in music today. In a sense, we are looking at our 1971 right now.
However, what was going on that made 1971 such a rich year for music? There were a number of social and political movements within the US, and internationally, that took music to new creative heights. THe Vietnam war and Cold War was brewing since the 60s and was now in full tilt with Nixon’s presidency. The anti – war movement was escalating and the Kent State shooting was only the year before. Moreover, issues like racism, poverty and the women’s movement were still bubbling away within the American context. Musically, funk and women singer songwriters were gaining prominence and changing music right before people’s eyes. All of these factors combined to make 1971 a rich environment for some of the best music ever recorded. Let’s look at some of the best records from 1971:
10. Janis Joplin: Pearl
Released one year after Janis Joplin’s untimely death, Pearl remains the outstanding record from one of the biggest women rock stars of all time. You can hear Janis belt out her classic take no prisoners bluesy vocal on tracks like Move Over, Cry Baby and Get it While You Can. However, she shows her range with such iconic folk tracks like Mercedes Benz and Me and Bobby McGee, which features Kris Kristofferson. Janis’ drive to succeed within the male dominated world of blues and rock was a political statement in and of itself. She was not content to stay silent and her music redefined women’s role in rock and roll.
9. The Allman Brothers Band: Live at Fillmore East
One of the best, if not the best, live records in music history. Any Allman Brothers fan will get lost in tracks like Statesboro Blues and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, but the album is so much more than a collection of tracks. It is the ability of the record to capture the band’s electric live energy that makes it such a classic. You can feel the band playing off each other. Moreover, this multi-race band reflected the people protesting in the street, which gives the band an added connection to the time. Also, it has the best live recording of any track ever with the truly visionary 23 plus minute Whipping Post. This track will change your life and reflects how the country viewed Nixon’s government in ’71. It start with “I’ve been run down / And I’ve been lied to,” which embodied the collective cry by hundreds of thousands of people in the street. Brilliant.
8. John Lennon: Imagine
This record has been praised for so long, that it is difficult to talk about it as simply a record and not a social movement. At this time Lennon was away from The Beatles and wanted to speak out against the war, political lies and senseless death he saw around him. The record can really be boiled down to two songs. The first is a bit of a deep cut and the second became its own social movement. First, I Don’t Want to be a Soldier Mama reflects the dissolution embodied in the Vietnam War. Some young activists saw the war as an endless machine grinding up their 18, 19 and 20 year old friends in the name of politics. Young men were leaving to fight a war they did not believe in and coming back dead. Lennon underlines this with his famous track Imagine. In this, Lennon painted his ideal world free of the greed and political gain he saw embodied in the Vietnam War. This record lives on today as people continue to aspire to the world Lennon dreams of in this record.
7. Funkadelic: Maggot Brain
This is the record that blew the doors off of the Mothership Funk movement. This is the third record from Funkadelic and produced by founder George Clinton himself. Clinton would later state that he wrote the 10 minute plus opening track under the influence of LSD, which is no surprise there. The biggest track off the record, Can You Get to That, features a famous studio vocal backing group Hot Buttered Soul. Maggot Brain is a funk trip that will take you out of time and space.
6. Joni Michell: Blue
Much like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell went through her own blue phase with this record. Mitchell put this record out after taking a break from touring in 1970 and focused on more personal tracks about her relationships, River, and having her child adopted, Little Green. She elevated women singer / songwriters and Blue continues to be the high bar for that genre…even today. Tracks like Blue, California and Carey capture the social movements, women’s rights and folk evolution of the 70s. Moreover, she gets folk heavy hitters James Taylor and Stephen Stills to contribute to the record. Blue is my favourite Joni Mitchell records and one of the best folk records ever recorded.
5. The Who: Who’s Next
For me, Who’s Next is the best record the Who recorded. It was their 5th record, but it captured the cynicism and mistrust of the government cultivated by Nixon and the Vietnam War. It is a dark record about who you can trust and the evils of society. Two tracks that embody this darker tone are Behind Blue Eyes and Won’t Get Fooled Again. Daltry sings about lies, vengeance, sadness and revolution with his telltale powerful growl. In his own words, “Change it has to come / We knew it all along…And the world looks just the same / And history ain’t changed.” The Who is using their music to break through the status quo and apathy in order to bring social change. A wonderful artistic and social expression.
4. David Bowie: Hunky Dory
What can I say? David Bowie is a rare artist who just happened to choose music as his medium and we are all the better for it. This was Bowie’s 4th record and the release that happened right before his Ziggy Stardust period in 1972. This is the edgy gender bending Bowie at his best and sharpest. Life on Mars? is a precursor to Ziggy Stardust and a sequel to Space Oddity, while Changes echos the marches internationally to end the war and bring about social change. Moreover, his tracks Quicksand and Queen Bitch touch on gender bending themes Bowie explored in earlier records and will continue to challenge in his work moving forward. At the time, this record went largely unnoticed, but Bowie fans will have fond thoughts about this hidden gem.
3. Led Zeppelin: IV
This is probably the most influential guitar led rock record of all time. Led Zeppelin IV is so iconic it is difficult to put it in perspective. To put the band’s breakneck recording speed into perspective, Led Zeppelin I was only released two years previously in 1969. It is rare to have a record where every track is on a greatest hit album, but this record manages to reach that high bar. I mean, the least known track might be Four Sticks, which has an incredible opening riff that has been sampled on countless tracks since 1971. Zeppelin was at their artistic zenith for this record and their tight blues rock combined with traditional folk made one of their most eclectic records. Tracks like Black Dog, Going to California, When the Levee Breaks, Rock and Roll and Stairway to Heaven have inspired countless bands since its release. This is not a record as much as it is a piece of rock and roll history.
2. Carole King: Tapestry
1971 was not only characterised by protests against the Vietnam War, but also cries for civil rights. People filled the streets for women’s rights and equality for African – Americans. For women, this movement will ultimately lead to the argument of Roe v. Wade in 1971 and its landmark decision in 1972/73. At the forefront of the women’s rights movement was Carole King and her record Tapestry embodies how women’s voices were becoming more prominent in social discussions. Her famous track (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman was written by King and originally sung by Aretha Franklin in 1967. However, her placing it on this record in 1971 reflects how women’s voices were at the centre of social change.
- Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
Much like how King was crucial to the women’s rights movement, Marvin Gaye became the voice of race and the Vietnam War. As Gaye saw his friends and family die in the war he questioned why America was wasting so many black lives on foreign soil, while many black people lived in poverty in American cities. Why won’t America fight for him? This question is at the centre of What’s Going On and was also a source of concern for Barry Gordy. Never before has Motown been so socially active and he was afraid that it would hurt sales. Gaye fought for the record and it ended up being the highest selling Motown LP. The title track What’s Going On and What’s Happening Brother focused on the impact of war on society and especially in black communities. Furthermore, the track Inner City Blues highlights how sending men to die in Vietnam takes the focus off domestic race issues like poverty, racism and police brutality. This is a record that transcends music and is as socially important today as it was in 1971.