The 1970s started with the ongoing tragedy of the Vietnam war and ended with the short-lived tragedy of disco. It was a decade of decadence. Doubt and discovery commingled, as a musical underground began to form, hidden from Top 40 listeners. However, because of the persisting novelty of rock music and the army of listeners it had, these odd acts periodically shared the spotlight with mainstream juggernauts. This resulted in a very heterogeneous, unique cultural climate where pop reigned one day and new wave cracked the charts the next. Western cultural concerns also broadened, allowing black and foreign musicians greater popularity than they had been afforded in the past. This coincided with remarkable creative growth spurts in the Detroit Motown scene (led by visionaries like Stevie Wonder, Marving Gaye and the Jackson Five) and the emergence of middle European “Krautrock” (with pioneers such as Can, Kraftwerk, and Amon Duul II). These mostly German groups boasted the first earnest integration of postmodernism and abstract doctrines into pop music, as well as predating basically every modern genre of music.
Whereas LSD and marijuana dominated the 60s and its cultural output, heroin and cocaine informed the 70s’ frantic, schizophrenic musical offshoots, oversized ambitions and occasional soul-crushing torpor. Despite the indulgent, lethargic downsides of experimentation, the early 70s were mostly a vibrant, innovative time for music. After the Beatles split up, they cracked open further walls of possibility, allowing numerous different genres to rise in prominence. Progressive rock grew increasingly ornate, working to perfectly meld art and song (and not always succeeding). In the absence of the Fab Four, and with the Rolling Stones and Who starting to peter out by 1974, new mammoth chart-toppers were starting to emerge. As the culture of the music profession was quantified, codified and justified, performance became a lifestyle rather than a hobby or risk. This led to many luxurious, indulgent genres like glam rock and heavy metal, which was just beginning to form. These cults spawned outsized personalities and media stars, who capitalized on the popularity craze formulated by the British Invasion. Some relished the spotlight and adoration so much that the business itself became even more of a driving force, which would have artistically disastrous results in the 80s.
As opposed to the 60s’ singles-based system, a new trend was rising. The Beatles had famously made entire albums with quality songs, that worked as a piece. Radio programmers and record label executives knew that milking that now-large demographic would prove fruitful. And so many artists became interested in writing albums as a unified whole, where they were promoted as such. Known on the airwaves as AOR (album-oriented radio), entire LPs became hits instead of just one or two tunes. The thing being popularized was a band’s sound, not just a couple fun melodies. In turn, this led to more exploration and patience on the part of the everyday listener. What’s more, certain bands became identified the same way a brand would, consistently putting out quality product and carving out a loyal audience, instead of winning over fickle consumers time and time again. This rabid fandom lasts to this day.
It was only a matter of time before the idol-worshipping seriousness of esoteric prog and mystical hard rock was deflated, and it came with surprising quickness. Around the US and UK, a groundswell of new garage bands with basic chops, simple songs and boundless energy were forming, tired of the elitism of the current music scene. Their sound hearkened back to the 60s, and the aggressive groups that played with nihilistic abandon. It was just as well; the more pompous, rarefied genres of music were getting tired and worn by 1975. And then, in 1976, with past threads of historical influence guiding them, four guys from Queens changed it all. It may seem odd, but never in their entire career were the Ramones popular in a spreadsheet, sales-driven sense. Their appeal hewed deeper, setting off a spark of recognition and approval in the minds of restless teens. They stripped rock down to absurdly simple chords and beats, finding its soul again. With the help of their UK contemporaries the Clash (who skewed more political) and the Sex Pistols (who were more violent and rude), punk music was invented. Its class distinctions and specific cultural cache did what prog and metal were already threatening to do: they splintered the national musical consciousness. From then onward, there would be less and less of a zeitgeist in western pop. The topical, forgettable popular songs of the day were more frequently favored on the radio and charts. As radio and club hits tended toward a more conservative, happy, R&B-inflected sound, experimenters and scenesters veered elsewhere. This also fostered a critical and artistic neglect and disdain toward more commercially-minded pop music which still abides.
Speaking of which, dance and electronic music truly started in the 70s, and were a calling card of R&B and club hits in contrast to the catch-all cliché they would become in the 80s. But they were first tinkered with by the aforementioned artsy Europeans who were decades before their time. Their influence was then augmented by art students and bohemians in New York and London. They played shows with odd little bands and songs at venues like CBGB. In fact, one of these bands, a group called Talking Heads, first started out opening for the Ramones at said location. It was a classic cultural moment of baton-passing, because this group didn’t really fit in with the punk scene. They wanted to be not necessarily bigger or more serious, but different and cerebral. British musician and producer Brian Eno felt the same way, an ocean apart. So did a few upper-middle-class outcasts in the U.K. Between Talking Heads, Brian Eno and the Police, post-punk was invented. It was formulated at the same time as another genre with which it is frequently confused. The one clear division between the two was that one category of bands did new things centered around guitars, and the other made more traditional compositions, but with the addition of novel synthesizers and electronic instruments. The latter were more frequently branded as new wave, while the former were post-punk. The moods of these new genres ranged from peppy and fun (the Buzzcocks) to spastic and arty (Talking Heads) to doomy and lethargic (Joy Division), while a few groups bridged the gap.
By 1980, these new cultural movements were in full blossom and music was spinning in every conceivable direction all at once. The beginning of the 70s was known for its innovation, the middle introduced punk to the world while the masses started getting into disco, and the end of the decade left everyone confused with what had happened to the promise of punk (and residual depression over the dead end of 60s enlightenment). This metamorphosed into the uncertain, experimental yet accessible new wave and post-punk scenes, while the mainstream became ever more redundant, capitalizing on overused tactics and ideas of the past. While it appeared that the brave new world of the underground scene would topple the bland, commerce-driven music machine, late 70s art rock would turn out to be another false start, for the most part. It would take another cultural uprising to propel art back into the everyday listener’s vocabulary. But that was a story for another decade.