Liner Notes

The Year That Was: 1971

by Benjamin Ray

A fiery burst of creativity and attitude in 1971 resulted in some of the finest records of all time. The reasons were many – full flowering of the experimental spirit started in the late ‘60s, freedom for artists to try anything and let their voice be heard, the everlasting hope for revolution and change in a violent world - and the music was excellent.

We start with Marvin Gaye and Motown's masterpiece, What's Going On, which is both timeless and as relevant today as it was then. Carole King's Tapestry and Joni Mitchell's Blue are emotional, moving folk-pop classics that pretty much birthed a genre. T. Rex's Electric Warrior and David Bowie's Hunky Dory also gave credence to the rising glam-rock genre, which was a blend of garage rock and art inspired by the Velvet Underground that would be a major influence over the next two decades.

And then there was a sort of Holy Grail of British hard rock: the Who's near-flawless Who's Next, Black Sabbath's Paranoid and, especially, Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album...and while "Stairway To Heaven" gets the headlines, "When The Levee Breaks" is the true monolithic masterpiece of that fine record. One could also make a case for Jethro Tull's sleazy Aqualung and the Rolling Stones' compelling Sticky Fingers to be on the short list for best rock album of the year.


This also was the year John Lennon offered Imagine, the Doors (with Jim Morrison, anyway) bowed out with the whiskey-soaked blues-rock of L.A. Woman (their best album apart from the debut), Alice Cooper (the band) had the very good Killer and the Allman Brothers served up one of the best live albums of all time, At Fillmore East. Later in the year, Black Sabbath released Master Of Reality, Deep Purple put out Fireball, the James Gang had "Walk Away," Traffic put out the off-kilter jazz-inflected The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys, Van Morrison released Tupelo Honey and Chicago delivered yet another double album, Chicago III, which had few concessions to pop and more experiments (not always successful) than the previous two outings.

1971 also was a great year for progressive rock. Yes picked up a new guitarist, Steve Howe, and turned in the fantastic The Yes Album, while Genesis picked up guitarist Steve Hackett and some dude named Phil Collins and turned in the darkly funny, much improved Nursery Cryme. Pink Floyd reigned in its psychedelic/art-rock tendencies for the superb Meddle ("One Of These Days" and "Echoes" are early band masterpieces that pointed the way forward), King Crimson turned in Islands , Focus had the funny yodel-rock "Hocus Pocus," Emerson, Lake and Palmer issued Tarkus and the Moody Blues had Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, an improvement over the last three albums.   

Some good rock singles from the year included Badfinger's "Day After Day," the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress," Rare Earth's "I Just Want To Celebrate," the grumpy socialism of Ten Years' After's "I'd Love To Change The World," Dave Edmunds' "I Hear You Knocking," Tommy James' "Draggin' The Line," Santana's "Oye Como Va," Don McLean's overplayed "American Pie," the Stampeders' "Sweet City Woman" and, of course, Three Dog Night's "Joy To The World." This also was the year that the Doobie Brothers debuted, Paul McCartney released the solid Ram and the single "Another Day," Rod Stewart put out Every Picture Tells A Story (this was back when he gave a damn) and Elton John offered two very good albums, Madman Across The Water and Tumbleweed Connection.


In bad pop music, there were expected singles from the Partridge Family, Osmonds, Bread ("If") and the Carpenters ("Rainy Days And Mondays"), as well as Melanie's awful "Brand New Key," Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves," Bobby Goldsboro's terrible "Watching Scotty Grow," Brewer and Shipley's "One Toke Over The Line," Tom Jones' "She's A Lady" and, worst of all, Five Man Electrical Band's self-righteous "Signs," with lines like "If God were here, He'd tell you to your face / Man you're some kind of sinner."

Better pop music included James Taylor's "You've Got A Friend," Isaac Hayes' theme from Shaft, Jennifer Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Mr. Bojangles," Carly Simon's Anticipation album, the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," Cat Stevens' "Peace Train," the Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," Ike and Tina Turner's rollicking version of "Proud Mary" (a song Tina absolutely nailed live), Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and the first single from some kid named Michael Jackson, "Got To Be There."

Two other albums of note: the first appearance of folk guitarist Leo Kottke on 6- and 12-String Guitar and Miles Davis' A Tribute To Jack Johnson, which incorporated blues-rock guitar and jazz into a seamless, addictive whole. It doesn't quite get the press of the album that preceded it, Bitches Brew, but it has nearly as much to offer.

And that, friends, is the Year That Was in music.

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