“Something Good Has Begun:” The Story of 1971, The Best Year Ever for Rock, Pop & Soul

Trying to pick the best year in rock music history implies that they weren’t all amazing. But they were, and they still are. When we say that, for example, 1967, was a great year for music, it’s not just a historical observation about 1967. It’s an observation about the way that the music from that year still moves us today.

That’s why it’s worth talking about which among these many magnificent years is worthy as a contender for Best Ever. Years whose music was not just wonderful as an experience of a particular time, but a year whose best works present themselves as more than oldies. They’re still present, in fundamental ways.

1971 is one of those special years for rock music. Taking just a couple of short steps past the center of classic rock, though, shows that 1971 saw new creativity and depth in pop and soul, and an explosion of energy and creativity in every corner of the music landscape that had never happened before, and in some ways, never since.

Some of the most popular albums of all time were released in 1971, including Led Zeppelin IV (technically, their untitled 4th album, but c’mon), the third-bestselling album of all time, and Carole King’s Tapestry, which until 1977 held the title of THE most popular album in history. Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Pearl by Janis Joplin extended the reach of women artists, every bit as much as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Shaft by Isaac Hayes redefined what it was possible for black male artists to accomplish.

Indelible singles like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “American Pie,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Maggie May” are among dozens that may be played even more today than in 1971. Artist after artist burst on the scene with multiple albums – Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge, and Emerson Lake & Palmer all debuted with 2 albums that year, and some artists like Elton John had as many as four releases.

Energy? Creativity? This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Even now, the stereotype lingers: the 60s were the golden age of peace, love, enlightening drugs, free love, and wonderful music, with the 70s withering into apathy, poisonous drugs, licentiousness and soulless music.

Musically, the message of 1971 couldn’t have been more adamant on the point. Nothing was over. We were in a new era, with new possibilities.

While playfully admitting in one of his introductions on Curtis Live! that it might be considered an inappropriate song “for the underground,” Curtis Mayfield appropriated the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” as a political manifesto prefacing his own civil rights anthem “People Get Ready.” John Lennon gently urged us to Imagine the world living as one, and Graham Nash assured us on Songs For Beginners that “we can change the world, rearrange the world.” Led Zeppelin promised in “Stairway to Heaven” that “a new day will dawn,” as Cat Stevens set the scene in “Peace Train:”

Now I’ve been smiling lately
Thinking about the good things to come
And I do believe
That something good has begun.

1971, THE BEST YEAR EVER FOR ROCK, POP & SOUL

1971 albums

A list of 1971’s best albums, its most important albums, also features some of the most popular of all time. They certainly made their impression in 1971, and their status has more than stood the test of time. For many of these, their reputation and influence have grown far beyond anything they even imagined in 1971.

I’ve tried to balance the following list between consensus choices for “Undisputed Classics” and personal choices that round out my view of the year. With an admitted skew toward classic rock from an American point of view, here are 20 places to start talking.

    • Led Zeppelin, IV  “Stairway To Heaven,” “Rock And Roll,” “Black Dog”
    • The Who, Who’s Next  “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” (aka Teenage Wasteland), “Behind Blue Eyes”
    • The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses”
    • Joni Mitchell, Blue Singles like “Carey” and “California” don’t do justice to the impact of this. One of the most intimate records ever, with its best songs coming out of her break-up with Graham Nash.
    • Janis Joplin, Pearl  “Me & Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz”
    • Carole King, Tapestry It’s Too Late,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” “You’ve Got A Friend”
    • Graham Nash, Songs For Beginners The single “I Used To Be A King” tells his side of Blue, with singles “Military Madness” and “Chicago” showing that intimacy and politics needn’t be mutually exclusive.
    • The Doors, LA Woman plus “Riders On The Storm” and “Love Her Madly”
    • Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On plusMercy Mercy Me”
    • Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story “Maggie May,” “Reason To Believe,” “Mandolin Wind”
    • John Lennon, Imagine plus “Jealous Guy”
    • Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On “Family Affair”
    • The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East “Statesboro Blues,” “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” “Whipping Post”
    • Isaac Hayes, Shaft
    • Jethro Tull, Aqualung , plus “Locomotive Breath,” “Cross-eyed Mary,” “Hymn 43”
    • David Bowie, Hunky Dory. Named in October 2013 by NME as the 3rd best album ever. Opening track: “Changes.” Also: “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?”
    • Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Too Many People”
    • Yes, Fragile “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround”
    • T. Rex, Electric Warrior Get It On (Bang A Gong)”
    • Cat Stevens, Teaser & The Firecat “Peace Train,” “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken”

I’m not going to argue too hard about the order of these. Every one of them is good enough to take the top spot, and you don’t have to look too hard to find lists where they do. I’m also not going to push back if someone insists that I should have included any number of other albums. A short list of those might include:

    • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 4-Way Street
    • Santana, Santana III
    • Jimi Hendrix, Cry Of Love Freedom,” “Angel”
    • Pink Floyd, Meddle
    • James Taylor, Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon  “You’ve Got A Friend,” “You Can Close Your Eyes”
    • Yes, The Yes Album “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Starship Trooper”
    • Isaac Hayes, Black Moses
    • Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame
    • Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love And Hate
    • George Harrison & Friends, Concert For Bangladesh
    • Elton John, Madman Across The Water  “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer”
    • Funkadelic, Maggot Brain
    • Black Sabbath, Master of Reality
    • Alice Cooper, Killer and Love It To Death (“I’m Eighteen”)
    • Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces Of A Man “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
    • Jesus Christ Superstar
    • Traffic, The Low Spark of High-heeled Boys­­­­­

I’m embarrassed that every single one of these is not included in my original top 20. Go right ahead and put ‘em in. Good luck removing more than a couple of­­ those titles to make room for these, though.

SWINGING SINGLES

Bill Withers Ain't No Sunshine-sm americanpie Gordon Lightfoot If You Could Read My Mind

This is a small handful of crucial 1971 singles not included on any of the above albums. To start:

    • Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine”
    • Don McLean, “American Pie”
    • Gordon Lightfoot, “If You Could Read My Mind”
    • Carpenters, “Rainy Days And Mondays”
    • Faces, “Stay With Me”
    • Ten Years After, “I’d Love To Change The World”
    • Badfinger, “Day After Day”
    • The Hollies, “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”
    • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Mr. Bojangles”
    • Stevie Wonder, “If You Really Love Me”
    • Rare Earth, “I Just Want To Celebrate”
    • Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together”
    • Van Morrison, “Wild Nights”
    • The Moody Blues, “The Story In Your Eyes”
    • Three Dog Night, “Joy To The World”
    • Joan Baez, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
    • Ike & Tina Turner, “Proud Mary”
    • Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There”
    • Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs”
    • Lee Michaels, “Do You Know What I Mean”
    • The Temptations, “Just My Imagination”
    • Neil Diamond, “I Am…I Said”
    • Carly Simon, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “Anticipation”
    • Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”
    • Dave Edmonds, “I Hear You Knocking”
    • Bee Gees, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights”
    • John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
    • Cher, “Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves”

Add the songs listed from the albums above,  and that’s 100 or so outstanding hits still heard every day.

1971 also offered some important musical trends that extended beyond individual albums and songs.


WOODSTOCK

It is with good reason that every conversation about the 60s and 70s gets to Woodstock sooner or later. The Woodstock Music & Arts Fair really was a big deal. Just not when it occurred in 1969.

For America at large, Woodstock barely happened at all that year. Sure, everyone who listened to rock music knew the general outline of the performers, but the overwhelmingly negative coverage by most news outlets made it sound nothing like the happy experiences of Newport 69 just before Woodstock, and the Texas International Pop Festival just after. Those were fun.

So when did “Woodstock” happen for the people who didn’t attend?  When the movie Woodstock and the album WoodstockMusic From The Original Soundtrack And More arrived in the spring and summer of 1970.

In that sense, you could say that 60s didn’t end around this time. For most of America, this is where the 60s began. More important, the “arrival” of the 60s set off a wave of optimism and energy that carried through the 70s in a reality entirely at odds with the orthodox view of the decade as a dismal comedown.

At the time, though, to use one example, Woodstock merited less than 2 minutes on Walter Cronkite’s CBS News, with correspondent reporting from amid piles of garbage after the festival ended on Monday, lamenting the chaos, mud, drugs, lawsuits, and deaths.

It wasn’t until we could see it for ourselves how Woodstock mattered.

Woodstock Poster 2

The impact from seeing Woodstock wasn’t just the music, although it turned out to be even more amazing than we’d imagined. It wasn’t the casual nudity or drugs. It was the revelation that there were so many of us.

In some ways the film’s most pivotal scene for this was of kids gleefully sliding in the mud on a sunny morning after a long night of rain. Even people with no access to drugs or acres of nudity — ie, almost anyone — could understand playing in the mud. The festival goers weren’t hippie freaks. They were kids. Like us.

The timing of the movie and album  in mid-1970, as well as the album Woodstock Two in July 1971, meant that several featured performers had their first big hits, and in many cases the biggest hits of their career, not in 1969, not even in 1970, but in 1971.

Some examples include showstoppers Sly & The Family Stone, whose 1971 album There’s A Riot Goin’ On was their only #1 album – in fact debuting at #1. Santana’s two biggest singles to date (and still two of their biggest), “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman,” were both released in 1971. Their album Abraxis was the 1971’s fifth biggest seller overall, and Santana III spent five weeks of late 1971 at #1.

The Who‘s biggest-selling album ever is 1971’s Who’s Next, their only album to reach #1. Even their 1971 compilation Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy was certified Platinum, with sales of 1 million copies in the US. Jefferson Airplane came on after The Who on Saturday night at Woodstock, and their only Platinum album, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane peaked at #12 in 1971.

Richie Haven’ 3-hour set to open the festival is the stuff of legend, but his only album to break the top 30 (Alarm Clock, at #29) and his only single to chart at all (“Here Comes The Sun,” #16) both came in 1971.

Melanie’s only #1 single, “Brand New Key,” was in 1971, as was Joan Baez’s only Top 30 Billboard hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It reached #3 on the Billboard’s main chart, and #1 on the Contemporary chart. The omnipresence of Janis Joplin’s Pearl and its first single, “Me And Bobby McGee,” in 1971 can hardly be overstated, as Pearl ended up as the fourth biggest-selling album that year. Somewhere in the world, that song is surely on the air right now.

None of these artists started immediately on a downhill slope. Quite the contrary, this is what lit many of them up. For example, groups like The Who were years away from reaching their commercial peaks, even if their 1971 albums have hung on to eventually surpass those intervening successes. Santana reached peaks decades later.

The point is that looking back, 1971’s music from the artists of Woodstock is still very much alive. Woodstock’s 1971 impact was a massive foundation that they built a future on, and that continues to play a major part in fueling their ongoing success.

Woodstock Two, released July 12, 1971.

Woodstock Two, released July 12, 1971.

CROSBY, STILLS & NASH.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG.
CROSBY AND STILLS AND NASH AND YOUNG.

Yes, the various combinations of these 4 gentlemen were massive enough in 1971 to constitute a trend.

The fact is that even with a terrific set at the festival, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young didn’t need Woodstock’s help. Crosby, Stills & Nash was one of the top albums in 1969, and the addition of Neil Young for Déjà Vu dominated 1970 before Woodstock even arrived in the rest of America.

That said, the excerpt from CSN&Y’s set on the first soundtrack album was longer than anyone else’s. Three more songs from CSN’s acoustic set (no Neil Young) were also included on 1971’s Woodstock Two. And why not? They were the biggest American band in the land.

Watch what else happened in 1971. Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush ended 1971 as the year’s 20th bestselling album. The group’s 4-Way Street was right behind that at #23 for the year, having peaked at #1 along the way. The eponymous solo album Stephen Stills peaked at #3 in 1971, and Stephen Stills 2 peaked at #8 that year — his only two Gold albums as a solo artist. David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name peaked at #12, and Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners reached #15, with three charting singles.

Graham Nash 1971 Advertise

And it turns out that 1970’s Déjà Vu wasn’t quite done either. It finished as the 50th bestselling album of 1971, on its way to sales of over 7 million copies to date. Add to this extensive touring and TV appearances, and one way and another, these guys were ubiquitous. Whether they’d broken up or just taken a break was irrelevant in 1971.

CSNY Woodstock single

CSN&Y’s biggest hits and biggest tours were ahead of them, and all four continue to write and perform new music – but their dominance in 1971 was extraordinary. There were no four men who, individually and collectively, left a bigger mark on 1971 than they did.

Okay, maybe one other group of four men.

THE BEATLES

Oh right, The Beatles.

Historians tell us that the breakup of The Beatles hung like a cloud over all our days in the 70s. John Lennon’s Imagine, recorded in February 1971 and released in September, was enough to refute that, with the 1971 non-album singles “Power to the People” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” bolstering the case.

Meanwhile, on his farm in Scotland, Paul McCartney was collaborating with his wife Linda on Ram, featuring “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,”  (his first solo #1 US single),“Too Many People,” and the non-album single “Another Day,” which reached #5.

Paul McCartney Ram ad2

Paul and Linda also formed Wings that year. While their 1971 debut Wild Life was a bit of a first pancake – not cooked quite properly, but warming the skillet for the better ones to come – it underscored a year of renewed creative commitment for Paul.

George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass first reached #1 on Billboard’s album chart in 1971, spending the first 7 weeks of the year in the top slot. The single “My Sweet Lord” also made its first chart appearance in the first week of 1971, likewise debuting in the top slot. Harrison’s next singles, “What Is Life” and “Bangla Desh,” were very much swept up in the momentum from the two benefit concerts that George hosted at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Aug. 1, 1971, quickly dubbed The Concert (singular) For Bangladesh.

Among the performers featured was Ringo Starr, performing his post-Beatles single, “It Don’t Come Easy” (featuring Stephen Stills on piano), released a few months earlier.

ringo - french-dont-come-easy

WOMEN ARTISTS: HEAR THEM ROAR

The top 4 albums of 1971 were either by women, or had women in the spotlight. Carole King‘s Tapestry was not only the second best-selling album of the year overall, but it spent 15 weeks straight at #1, on its way to becoming the best-selling album in the history of the world. (It held that title from 1973-1977.)  Pearl’s position at #4 fails to do justice to Janis Joplin’s presence on FM radio that year (or since). The Carpenters Close To You at #3 likewise fails to do justice to their presence on AM radio, with two strong album releases that year, as well as some of their most enduring singles.

Carole King Tapestry outtake

Roberta Flack was not far behind, with her album Chapter Two as the year’s 11th biggest-seller.

Jesus Christ Superstar topped the year end list for a variety of reasons, most certainly including two hit versions of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” Yvonne Elliman‘s was the version from the play’s soundtrack. The better-selling version was the debut single of Helen Reddy, whose 1971 debut album also included a little ditty called “I Am Woman.”

Other notable women debuting in 1971: Carly Simon released her first two albums, as did Rita Coolidge. (For that matter, Carole King also released her first two albums in 1971.) Olivia Newton-John’s debut included a hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Be There.” Cher and Sandy Denny made their solo debuts. Bonnie Raitt had a terrific debut, and Judee Sill’s was even better, yielding the Graham Nash-produced single, “Jesus Was A Cross Maker.”

Some other non-debuts to note:

Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take A Miracle was a major pop hit, and with strong assists from singer Patti LaBelle and soul production legends Gamble and Huff, placed even higher on the R&B chart. Laura’s song “Stoney End” served as the title track for one of two 1971 comeback albums by Barbra Streisand, this one reaching #6; the other, Barbara Joan Streisand, reached #11. Christine McVie joined Fleetwood Mac as a full member, and saw her first songs appear on a Fleetwood Mac album with 1971’s Future Games.

Aretha Franklin at Fillmore West, March 1971, by Robert Altman.

Aretha Franklin at Fillmore West, March 1971, by Robert Altman.

Aretha Franklin’s 1971 Greatest Hits album had 3 new songs, two of which reached #1, with the other peaking at “only” #3. One of the number ones, her version of“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” also won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. “Rock Steady,” a single from her soon-to-be released album Young, Gifted & Black, rose to #2 on 1971’s R&B charts, and her album Aretha Live At Fillmore West went to #1 on the R&B chart and #7 on the Pop chart, handily outselling the Allman Brothers Band’s Live At Fillmore East that year.

Joni Mitchell Blue billboard

1971 billboard for “Blue” on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

Did I mention Joni Mitchell’s Blue? It might not be possible to overstate the impact of this album over the past 40+ years. It certainly capped an astonishing year for women across many genres, in a way that will hopefully be repeated some day…but certainly hasn’t yet.
SOUL MUSIC: AUDACITY AND AUTONOMY

Despite Aretha’s amazing year, and a home in the highest reaches of the year-end chart for Roberta Flack, 1971 soul music was dominated by Isaac Hayes. The year’s R&B charts began with his To Be Continued at #1, and ended with Shaft on top. In all, Hayes held the #1 spot for 24 weeks of 1971.

Shaft wasn’t just big. It was BIG – the first-ever double album set of original studio material by a black artist. The only thing audacious enough to follow it up was the second double-album studio set by a black artist, this time with a 4-ft high fold-out album cover in the shape of a cross, featuring Hayes as Black Moses. Released at the end of 1971, it spent 7 weeks at #1 in January and February of ‘72.

Isaac Hayes Black Moses with discs

The folded-out cover of the double album “Black Moses” by Isaac Hayes: 4 ft high by 3 ft wide.

Also audacious: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, the first Motown album with the artist in complete creative control, doing his own production on an album of his own songs. The label owner objected so strenuously to the title track that the label’s sales director wound up pressing and releasing 100,000 copies of it as a single without the boss’s knowledge. Its immediate success helped secure Gaye’s 1971 contract of $1 million, the largest ever given to a black artist until then.

Gaye’s success also led to labelmate Stevie Wonder demanding, and winning, control over his own recordings. Music In My Mind wasn’t the masterpiece that his mid-70s albums would be, but it was a fine start.

Motown also had the Jackson 5’s Maybe Tomorrow parked at #1 on the R&B chart for six weeks, and their 1971 Greatest Hits album has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. The little one’s voice was awfully squeaky, but he was as charismatic as any performer on any stage, and could outdance anyone short of James Brown. His 1971 solo debut was just called Michael Jackson. Seemed at the time like the kid had some potential.

Earth Wind & Fire debuted with two albums in 1971, and War had their first two albums under their new, post-Eric Burdon name this year as well.

And while Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits was that band’s biggest seller in 1971 – the year’s 9th best-selling album overall – 1971, and the years after, all belonged to There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Is it actually a soul album? Funk, R&B, rock, pop? It fit perfectly in each of them, and defied them all. It’s also a bit of a litmus test: was it the end of the 60s and the paranoid cynicism of the 70s incarnate, or was it a consciously – and this is the perfect word – sly celebration of life lived outside anyone’s expectations?

Sly & The Family Stone, the single "Smilin'" from "There's A Revolution Goin' On."

Sly & The Family Stone, the single “Smilin'” from “There’s A Revolution Goin’ On.”

POLITICS AND PEACE

Some have speculated that the title There’s A Riot Goin On is a playful reply to Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s Going On? Maybe so. Sly was usually quick to distance himself from overt politics, but a re-rendering of the American flag on the album’s cover in red, white and black was no accident.

That makes it not such a stretch to assume that the album’s title – a quote from the 1954 hit by The Robins, “Riot In Cell Block Number 9”—may have referred to actual prison riots a few months before the album’s release, notably, at New York’s Attica Correctional Institute. Among the precipitating causes of the riot there was the assassination of black activist George Jackson in California’s San Quentin Prison on August 21, 1971.

That event was so overwhelming that it hastened the return of Bob Dylan to political protest music. He recorded two versions of “George Jackson” (labeled “Big Band” and “Acoustic”), and released them as two sides of a single on November 12, 1971: “They were frightened of his power / They were scared of his love / Lord, Lord, so they cut George Jackson down.”

Bob Dylan George Jackson Big Band

Five days later saw the release of his album Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. (This and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits are his two best-selling albums, 5 million copies each.) It featured five new songs, including one written from the perspective of a prisoner (“I swear I see my reflection / Some where so high above this wall”), “I Shall Be Released.” His identification with prisoners and their plights also led to his 1975 song, “Hurricane,” an 8:33 single that would eventually help secure the release of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose murder conviction was overturned as having been motivated by the fact that he was black, rather than any actual evidence.

The cover photos for both “George Jackson” and Greatest Hits Vol. II were taken at the Concert for Bangladesh, whose plight had moved to front and center in the music community starting with the April release of George Harrison’s single “Bangla Desh.”

Peace, though, that was the overwhelming political theme in 1971’s music. There were certainly some expressions of burnout. For example, Joni Mitchell sang in the song “California” from Blue, “They won’t give peace a chance / That was just a dream some of us had.” The classic Ten Years After song “I’d Love To Change The World” continued, “but I don’t know what to do / so I leave that up to you.”

“Imagine” and “Peace Train” are among the many songs indicating that this was nowhere near the case for the scene at large. Hey, even The Archies released a single called “A Summer Prayer For Peace.”

The Archies A Summer Prayer For Peace

The Archies. A group of cartoon characters.

It’s cynical to assume that releases like this were only cynical. The fact is that anti-war songs were everywhere, because anti-war protests were mainstreaming. It wasn’t just hippies anymore. (Not that it was ever just hippies.) In April, veterans threw over 700 of their medals away on the steps of Congress, and over 500,000 people participated in march on the capitol demanding peace. John Kerry testified in front of Congress on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against The War. 12,000 were arrested in protest demonstrations in Washington DC the following month. In June, the New York Times published “The Pentagon Papers,” Defense Department documents revealing the systematic concealment of the truth about the Vietnam War from Americans, including Congress.

Grand Funk was among the other groups known primarily for good times to enter the fray. “I Can Feel Him In The Morning” (considered an especially eloquent anti-war statement at the time) and “People Let’s Stop The War,” from 1971’s Survival and E Pluribus Funk respectively are just two examples.

Chicago’s “It Better End Soon” suite was prominently featured on Chicago (aka Chicago II) and the live Chicago at Carnegie Hall (aka, Chicago IV), both among the year’s best sellers.  The latter featured a new number, “Song For Richard And His Friends,” that singer Robert Lamm introduced by saying, “It’s kind of a wishful song, wishing that President Nixon would quit.” Forty months later of course, the dream came true.

Their best-selling album that year, Chicago III, featured inside cover art of the band each dressed in the uniform of American soldiers from each of its wars, listing the death toll for all of them.

The inside cover of "Chicago III."

The inside cover of “Chicago III.”

As an introduction to the topic, rather than a comprehensive review, this is enough for now, with one more note. One of the false stereotypes of the era is that socially engaged music was fading in favor of introspective folk rock. Robert Hilburn was among the critics saying this as early as 1968, when he observed that “the hard loud” had “obviously” reached its zenith, and from there, the only possible direction was softer, inward-facing music.

He was “obviously” mistaken about hard rock peaking in 1968, and he and other critics were wrong that that confessional folk rock and social consciousness was an either/or state. One of the best examples is the 1971 single from Graham Nash, with “Simple Man” as intensely emotional and personal a song from any artist that year (recalling his break-up with Joni Mitchell, “I just want to hold you / I don’t want to hold you down”) on one side, with “Chicago” on the other: “We can change the world / rearrange the world” – a song that brought together themes of compassion for prisoners that ran throughout Nash’s career from here — opening with the indelible image of Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged during his 1968 trial — and a commitment to working for peace.

The Netherlands release of the single "Simple Man/Chicago."

The Netherlands release of the single “Simple Man/Chicago.”

The 70s would be both more personal and more political than most of the 60s, starting right here in 1971.

EMERGENCE

I’ve already touched on a strong handful of artists whose solo identities crystalized as distinct from the groups they became famous with. I’ve also pointed to many with two major 1971 releases, including a large number of debuts. However, there were still others who’d had previous releases,  but who became true giants in 1971. Chicago had their first three albums in the year-end top 20, with a 4th in 1971 that dominated early 72 — and Chicago V recorded in September of 1971 released in early 72, ANS six 1971 singles!

Elton John released four albums, the last of which, Madman Across The Water, featured his songs “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer.” That album brought the addition of a guitarist to his previous trio configuration, to complete the band that would create his greatest  albums of the decade. 1971 also saw his first headlining tour, and his first American TV appearance — in a quartet alongside Ray Charles, Cass Elliot and Andy Williams!

Faces released two terrific albums in 1971, as well as their biggest single, “Stay With Me.” The solo album from their lead singer, Rod Stewart, actually featured all five members of the band, and could conceivably have been released as the year’s third Faces album. That album was Every Picture Tells A Story, and you’ll probably hear its biggest single, “Maggie May” sometime today, if you haven’t already. That song and album both held the #1 slot in the US and UK in the same week, the first time this had ever been accomplished.

1971 was also a banner year for the emergence of progressive rock, aka prog. The members of Pink Floyd have agreed that Meddle is where Pink Floyd truly begins. Genesis and Yes settled into the group membership most associated with their classic years, with Yes releasing two of the genre’s most popular and influential albums that year, The Yes Album and Fragile. Release dates in the US and UK frequently straddled both sides of the year, but on the whole Emerson, Lake & Palmer release three albums in 1971 (Emerson, Lake & PalmerPictures At An Exhibition and Tarkus) with their debut as 1971’s 25th bestselling album. The debuts of Electric Light Orchestra and Kraftwerk may not have been prog per se, and while nobody may ever come up with the right words to describe Can‘s Tago Mago, the prog community embraces it as a seminal release as important as any of these.

David Bowie is another artist who constitutes his own trend. He began the year as the Raphaelite beauty with flowing brunette locks lounging in a richly embroidered dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, becoming the angelic blonde of Hunky Dory singing about “Changes” and “Life On Mars,” and ended it as the electrically red-headed Ziggy Stardust, who made his first public appearance in January of 1972. By then, Bowie had already written the songs that would form the backbone of his next album, The Return Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

That was the one that completed the emergence he began in 1971, and from there, the changes didn’t stop — not for Bowie, not for any of us.

OF NOTE

It’s a measure of 1971’s breadth and depth that Led Zeppelin IV winds up in the “Honorable Mention” category. It sold well enough, as all of Zeppelin’s albums did. All nine of them wound up in the top 10 – unprecedented – with six reaching #1. Its major impact grew over time, though. As of today, it has sold over 32 million copies worldwide to become the #3 bestselling album of all time. It is the perfect example of a 1971 album that served as a strong foundation at the time, staying solid enough, long enough, to become their most enduring success.

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SOMETHING GOOD HAD BEGUN

Placing 1971 firmly in the 70s also makes it easier to see that the decade offered music in many ways more diverse and richer, more fully formed, than the 60s.

The world had already shifted on its musical axis in the 60s, but the movements begun there stayed well in motion through the 70s as others sprung into life for the first time. Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Clash, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, Fleetwood Mac and Donna Summer all carved out their part of the 70s. Decade-spanning runs of constant innovation from Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Bob Marley and many others, showed that there was no shortage of music that was both good, and good for ya.

Nowhere was this more true than 1971. In no way the last, vestigial wave of the 1960s, 1971 was a year of exceptional music and energy that carved out its own, new niche in history. It features some of the best, and best-selling, rock, pop and soul music ever released, as relevant and popular now as ever.

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