Artistry ascendant:
1971: The Year
That Music Changed Everything

Picking an epochal year in music can be tricky. While 1954 or 1977 may be easy choices for turning points in rock, I was always partial to 1966. Ronald Brownstein’s new book Rock Me on the Water zeroes in on 1974. And an inviting new eight-part series on Apple TV+ picks 1971.

At first sight, the tight focus on that 12-month period in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything seems almost arbitrary—except that we’re in the golden anniversary of it.

Fifty years ago was two years after Woodstock, a year after The Beatles broke up and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, but years before punk or hip-hop would fully emerge. Other than the historical symmetry of being exactly 50 years ago, did it stand out? Sure, there was a lot of great music that year, the series makes clear, but did it actually change everything?

The series by Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, who worked their magic in the Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, makes its case thematically, with historical turning points saturated with the music of the day—songs that were not just influenced by the events surrounding them, but actually influenced the events as well.

Based on its own book, 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Greatest Year, by David Hepworth, the filmmakers rely solely on archival material, news clips, TV performances, home movies and still shots, stitched together to create a visually captivating portrait of an unsettled era not unlike our own. They match it to the voices from interviews both contemporary and archival, lending it an immediacy that doesn’t take one out of the era by actually seeing those who are speaking from today’s vantage point (so we dwell on how old they of course may look 50 years later).

It’s jarring to hear Richard Nixon’s voice in one audio snippet, followed by something from John Lennon (as if they both chose to participate), but it gives the work some authority as it shifts madly from issue to issue.

Already the legacy of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and its enduring themes that gained renewed relevance this past year, has been cited, most recently in a Don Lemon-hosted documentary on CNN.

But less celebrated is the political intent of Lennon, eager to shake off Beatles barnacles for strong personal messages. Both are part of the opening episode “What’s Happening,” which includes some documentary footage of George Harrison at Lennon’s home studio, about to add some guitar parts to Imagine and reserving judgement on Lennon’s latest screed thrown at Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” It was Harrison’s own triumphant Concert for Bangladesh, held in August 1971, that is cited as the event that set the stage for urgent issue-related benefit concerts to come.

The series returns to how grim things were becoming because of drugs. Sly Stone was retreating to his studio to layer the murky sounds of what was to become There’s a Riot Goin On. Not only did he nearly nod off on Dick Cavett, he didn’t think much of “Family Affair,” which was released as its hit single.

The Rolling Stones, after the triumph of Sticky Fingers, were in tax exile in France, where they indulged themselves in the plentiful, cheap heroin of the region and wallowed in their haze such that their instruments were stolen by drug dealers demanding repayment and they were busted by local authorities, sending them on the lam. Jim Morrison was the last of the rash of 27-year-old deaths of the era and his demise in Paris was preceded by a series of concert arrests.

A recurring theme in the series is the break from the peace and love hippie generation to the darker new realities of the decade, the ongoing Vietnam war, the increasing protest movement against it. “The dream is over,” are the first words heard in the opening credits, from Lennon.

1971 does a good job at showing how music reflected Black empowerment of the time, with a focus on Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, and Curtis Mayfield. Much of Tina Turner’s story of self-awareness was told in her own HBO documentary recently. But the connections between Aretha Franklin and Angela Davis are not as widely known (the Queen of Soul offered to bail her out).

At a time when the story of Fred Hampton is becoming widely known through the film Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s informative and timely to hear the stories of George Jackson (lamented in a Bob Dylan single). Attica, billed as the largest state-sponsored killing since Wounded Knee, gets a soundtrack from Heron’s “The Prisoner.” The women’s rights movement is told parallel to the success of Carole King and Joni Mitchell in their confessional music. Elton John’s rise is told alongside the gay rights movement.

There was a darkness in 1971, where the trial of Charles Manson took place amid furor over My Lai, and both are mentioned in the documentary in conjunction with the Stanford prison experiment that proved men in mobs can turn inhumane. To that, we hear Stevie Wonder’s lesser-known track that year, “Evil.”

New music was emerging in England that year as David Bowie tried to hone a new persona, from long-haired neo-folkie in a dress to Ziggy Stardust, which he was recording by the end of the year. Most of the year he struggled to get The Man Who Sold the Earth and Hunky Dory noticed; there’s a telling tape of Bowie singing a spare version of “Changes” to the few people who weren’t sleeping as the sun rose during his badly-slated set at the Glastonbury fest.

Cherry-picking the coolest things in ’71 may give a false impression of the year; the No. 1 song on Billboard for the year, after all, was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” which is never mentioned. But, I have to admit, the No. 4 song of the year does get some attention, and we see it performed—“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds, under an interview in which Donny admits he was a closet Hendrix fan.

The clips throughout are eye-opening, from a joyous “Soul to Soul” concert by Stax artists in Ghana, to James Brown issuing “Soul Power” on Italian TV. The Who is cited as an inspiration to those who broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania in an early episode. Later, Pete Townshend talks about his synthesizer experiments that resulted in a snippet looped in “Baba O’Riley.”

That comes in an episode that points to many new directions laying their groundwork—Bob Marley and reggae, the early ska scene in Britain, and the electronics explosion in Germany that led to Kraftwerk.

A lot happened in 1971, it turns out, in part because record companies flush with money were willing to allow acts to try new things. And if things aren’t as simple as Bowie’s quote that “we were creating the 21st century in 1971,” the wealth of music in the series makes it seem so.

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