Words and music by Jon Rooney, who records as Virgin Of The Birds.
To begin with a broad shot of dubious hyperbole, I declare that things have never been better than they were 1973. By things I mean popular art: art that was neither conventionally entertaining by modern tastes nor particularly coherent yet existed in some sort of hazy, avocado mainstream rather than the academy or the crevices of marginelia (sorry, Jazz). The early 1970’s, thanks to the persistent adolescent myopia of Baby Boomers and their now five decades of self-lionization, are often derided as being a hazy bummer – a depressing, cruel comedown from the halcyon days of Wavy Gravy and the war against the squares. In idealized retrospect, it doesn’t seem like there were any squares left by 1973. 1972 saw both Deep Throat and “Walk on the Wildside” become huge hits, signaling either a total collapse of traditional mores in the popular conscience or just a fashionable interest in lasciviousness. Either year, all bets were off by the following year.
1973 is the year that gave us John Cale’s baroque pop masterpiece Paris 1919 and Pink Floyd’s ubiquitous Dark Side of the Moon. After the breakout success of the previous year’s Transformer, Lou Reed decided to bum out the whole world with Berlin, an exceedingly depressing album about depravity and loss that featured not only producer Bob Ezrin’s crying children on the track “The Kids” but also the keyboard styling of Rick Wakemen. David Bowie closed out his Spiders from Mars period with Alladin Sane and the odd, oft-forgotten Pin-Ups cover record then, after one last glam rock spurt with Diamond Dogs, proceeded to invent the 1980’s from broadcloth starting with Young Americans through the Eno records. 1973 also saw the release of Tanx, the last essential T. Rex album before Marc Bolan fell prey to bloat and ill-conceived R&B affectations. Painfully British glam act Slade released their first compilation of proto-bubblegum metal (Sladest) in 1973, providing not only a repertoire for Quiet Riot (“Mama Weer All Crazee Now” and “Cum on Feel The Noize”) but also establishing a fun, goofy counterpoint to America’s sleazy New York Dolls. Slade were lads and they wore rhinestones and make-up. The New York Dolls were decidedly not lads and they wore rhinestones and make-up. This, apparently, was 1973.
1973 brought plenty of heady, yet amazingly popular, weirdness to the cinema as well. While it’s easy to dismiss the obscure, quasi-religious freakout The Holy Mountain as an artifact of the times, one can’t ignore the massive success of both The Exorcist and Last Tango in Paris. Demonic possession and anonymous sex were big that year apparently. Films like Mean Streets, The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now and The Last Detail are, by today’s standards, slow, unwieldy and often conceptually vague. Yet, in 1973, they were par for the course for the type of auteur-driven films that made their way to the theaters.
Havelock Ellis, in his 1903 introduction to J.K. Huysmans’ degenerate classic a Rebours (Against the Grain), describes decadence in literature as “simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization …the first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts” (p. xiv). Ellis claims decadent art “depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtues of individualism” (ibid). From this point we can begin to survey 1973. These albums, songs, and films perhaps had more depth than breadth, hinging more on obsession than comprehensiveness. The work of these auteurs can be accused of being indulgent, overripe and self-involved, but they certainly can’t be scorned as pandering or formulaic. It’s both convenient and plausible to argue that, in 1973, popular art was briefly clear of the demands for broad identification or even appeal through familiar constructs of narrative or format. Somehow things not overtly entertaining (certainly by today’s standards) yet decidedly ambitious were popular for a crazy window of however many months and years before Big came back.
The closing of that window ushered in an age of cultural unity which has led to a sort of popular art of submission and awe that, in many ways, still reigns to this day. The later 70’s, perhaps in an attempt to shake off the fog of 1973’s weirdness, introduced Jaws and Star Wars, Rumours and disco. Popular art returned to some pretext of populism and went all in on a brand of overwhelming escapism that has yet to ever really recede. Which isn’t to say that tons of great stuff hasn’t come out in the almost 40 years since an aging Marlon Brando sex film raked in the cash at the box office, it just hasn’t seemed like there was ever a time when that was not only the norm, but the celebrated norm. The early 90’s sort of felt that way a little (Sonic Youth on MTV! Tarantino!) but alterna-culture was far too easily co-opted by the merchants of desire and wholly crippled by the dual plagues of irony and self-consciousness to make a legitimate claim. Screw the Boomers, long live 1973.
Here’s a track recorded by Virgin Of The Birds called “Spooky, Stony, Barely Over Thirty.”
2 thoughts on “Guest Column: In Praise of 1973”
Sir, I believe you are forgetting a little band called Bachman-Turner Overdrive. 1973 saw the release of their album, BTO II, featuring TCOB. Perfect music? No. Good music? No. But soulful garbage it was.
Hawkwind – The Space Ritual Alive in Liverpool and London – 1973.