1971 could easily be one of those years that would be considered an afterthought, if only because it ends with the number one instead of zero. When it comes to rock music, though, David Hepworth has composed a very strong argument that it is more important than the previous year, that saw the breakup of the Beatles and the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson. Indeed, Hepworth’s book, titled Never a Dull Moment:1971, The Year That Rock Exploded is based on the premise that not only was 1971 more important than 1970 in rock music, it was one of the most important years in rock music, period.
Hepworth is British. Consequently, some of the musicians and bands he discusses might not be found in as many memories of those who enjoyed rock music in the United States in 1971. Of course, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are featured, despite the former entity’s demise. Why? Because the fact of the Beatles’ end was still hard to believe in 1971, despite the release of solo albums by every single member by year’s end. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand were beginning their flight to the top of rock and roll aristocracy (in all meanings of that label.) Another band that was on the rise and would release their most popular records to date was Led Zeppelin. That album was Led Zeppelin IV, which contained among other tunes, one of rock’s most often played (some would say overplayed) tunes, “Stairway to Heaven.” Then there was the introduction of Alice Cooper.
Hepworth arranges his text by month. Within each chapter, he presents major album releases and rock music events and discusses their impact. Blending personal remembrances, historical observations and journalistic commentary from the period, he provides his readers with an affecting exploration of rock music and its meaning to those who were its audience in 1971. Beginning in January, Hepworth introduces the biggest selling album of the year, Carole King’s Tapestry. As he introduces the singer, the album and the year, he makes a reasonable and convincing argument that King’s album expanded the rock music record-buying demographic beyond its predominantly male clientele and, in doing so, brought the music industry a bigger slice of the entertainment industry’s pie and, in its own way, added its influence to the young decade’s burgeoning feminist movement.
Hepworth continues in this manner, writing about the Stones’ last English tour before they exiled themselves to France to avoid paying taxes and the advent of the singer-songwriter phenomenon by singers James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. The lives of the individual Beatles and the rumors of their possibly getting back together; George Harrison putting together the legendary Concert for Bangladesh; Bob Dylan being Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young making music together and apart. Sly & the Family Stone released the dark muddy opus titled There’s a Riot Going On and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? broke with Motown’s Berry Gordy’s dislike of socially conscious soul music. By rolling out this stellar list, together with the multitude of albums released that year that remain in the rock canon (whatever that might be), the author makes his case that 1971 was not only the year that popular music became rock music, but also the year that saw the recording of many of rock music’s greatest works. Ending each is a list of records/concerts that represent the month from which the chapter is titled. Even more representative than these lists, however, is the list of a hundred albums from the year that Hepworth ends the book with.
Politically, this book is rather scant. Like much of the rock audience/culture, Hepworth was in it for the music, and maybe the sex and drugs. His politics here are liberal at best, either cynically dismissing those who insisted on the political possibilities of rock and the counterculture or blithely suggesting that those who identified with the radical politics of the late 1960s were misled by cynical, manipulative politicos who cared little for the music, but wanted the bodies for their revolution. This perspective is one that would find a journalistic home in the pages of Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine and be encouraged by the mainstream establishment, who primarily understood the music in terms of dollar signs. There were other radical ways that the rock music of 1971 was changing that were much more cultural than political. Besides the aforementioned new demographic of women album buyers, there was David Bowie. Together with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Bowie made the concept of gender fluidity a part of rock music and culture. This change from standard binary roles in the masculine world of rock music alienated some, but seemed to encourage many members of the rock audience to consider their gender identification and sexuality in different terms. This reconceptualizing of western sexuality was not revolutionary in one sense, but was revolutionary in another. Indeed, as I wrote in Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies:
“So, if one couldn’t change the world, why not change one’s identity in such a way that was not only radical but said “fuck you“ to the powers-that-be? No class organization was required. This type of change was completely personal and would freak out the people one wanted to freak out.”
I turned sixteen years old in1971. Listening to rock music in my room and going to rock concerts was how I coped. I don’t want to ever be sixteen again, but reading Never a Dull Moment made me wish for another time in my life when music meant as much as it did to me back then. Some of the stories related in these pages were ones my friends and I discussed while smoking cigarettes before class. Some of them were new to me. For those who were around and paid attention to rock music in 1971, this book is a refreshing and friendly journey to that time. For those who weren’t, Never a Dull Moment (which is the title of a Rod Stewart album from 1972, by the way) is a delightful and engaging written introduction to that time. If you haven’t listened to the albums discussed in this book in a while (or never have), reading Never a Dull Moment will make you pull them up on your device and give them a listen. That is how good this book is.