TV becomes slightly more relevant, but offers weird superheroes. Hollywood offers disaster and conspiracy flicks, but the public demands nostalgia. This leads to Rock & Roll’s darkest hour: Disco. 1976 Birthdays: America’s 200th and ex-Berkeley freshmen, (who in 1964 warned, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!”)…turn thirty.
The exact cause and time of death of the ‘60s is impossible to determine, but one can pinpoint the burial. It occurred over a one-month span in 1974. On September 8th, Ford granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute” pardon for all crimes committed in office, and on the 25th of the month, A judge overturned Lt. Calley’s conviction for reasons of “prejudicial pretrial publicity.” On November 8th, the court acquitted all eight of the accused Ohio National Guardsmen of charges in the Kent State Massacre.
Boomers dropped out of the counterculture, and turned on and tuned in television. The networks offered (for the first time since Star Trek in 1966) decent tube fare in the ‘70s. Mary Tyler Moore finally presented young, independent, single career women with a believable role model. With M*A*S*H (1972), the tube finally admitted that war in Vietnam might not be as much fun and glory as it had promised in the mid-‘60s. All In the Family demonstrated to Boomers that one of us could actually co-exist under the same roof with one of them. Even though generational relationships grew tense at times, Archie was a welcome alternative to Joe. Spin-off, Maude irritated many male chauvinistic viewers, and that was a good thing. Blacks and Latinos appeared for the first time playing normal, everyday people on Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man (1974). Television evolved, and seemed almost worth watching.
One glaring deficiency in the pages of TV Guide in the ‘70s was a lack of superheroes. Little Boomer boys always intuitively surfed channels for champions to idolize and emulate… from Captain Midnight to Davy Crockett to Superman and Batman. But in the mid-‘70s, they found only two very strange candidates: The Six Million Dollar Man and Kane in Kung Fu. Both reflected our defeat in Vietnam. Steve Austin, a typical American male, too civilized and flabby to be a superior fighting machine faced recall. Only through superior technology (specifically bionics) could America stand a chance of defeating barbarians in hand-to-hand combat. Reflecting the violent year, Austin’s powers didn’t happen as the result of a dedicated, slow development of God-given talents, but rather, as the result of a fluke accident. Science replaced his damaged flesh and bones with new and improved mechanical marvels. Ebb Tide Boomers (those born in the years 1959 to 1964) grew up wishing that they too, could trade in their inferior human parts. Hollywood took the idea a step further with no-blooded killers (like Yul Bryner) in Westworld, and in Demon Seed (where a computer mates with a human).
TV offered a second hero with Kane… an Asian who easily defeated large groups of inferior Caucasians, with complete focus of mind and body. Kane symbolized the anti-Tarzan. Boomer boys signed up for Kung-Fu and Karate classes and began to watched Kato (Bruce Lee) films with a passion.
Had Americans become too civilized to survive in a violent world? In Zardoz (1974) and A Boy and His Dog (1975), the impotent ruling class of the near future lured barbarian men into their domain to fertilize their women. The pale, flabby, civilized no longer felt up to the task, and their groups teetered on the edge of extinction.
The big screen offered little hope. A decade of traumatic shocks, from the assassinations of JFK, RFK and King to an outrageous pardon from a non-elected President, left Boomers wondering, “How could things possibly get any worse?” Hollywood enthusiastically answered: Earthquake (1973). “Sensurround” blew off the back doors of the theatre at its premiere), Towering Inferno (1974), The Poseidon Adventure, Avalanche, Meteor, Flood, The Swarm (killer bees), Phase IV (killer ants), Juggernaut, Airport sequels, and a disaster spoof, The Big Bus (1976). Movies were bigger than life again. The gang in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dwarfed the Manson Clan. Jaws (‘76) scared Teen Utopia refugees away from the beach forevermore. Violent crime became Big Business in Godfather (‘72), legitimate Standard Operating Procedure in Godfather: Part II, and finally, in Rollerball (‘75), corporations replaced out-dated governments around the world. Conspiracy became as common as jaywalking in Klute (‘71), Shampoo (‘75), Chinatown (‘74), The Conversation (‘74), Parallax View (‘74) and All the President’s Men (‘76). In Nashville (‘76), the crowd broke out into a sing-along of It Don’t Worry Me after an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, but Taxi Driver (‘76) suggested that maybe they should worry.
The popular Boomer flick genre of the-last-sane-man-in-an-insane-society grew darker in the mid-‘70s. The problem of abnormal behavior diminished, because society now owned a surgical cure for rebels. An inmate in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (‘75) refused heavy sedation and received a lobotomy as an alternative treatment. The Man Who Fell to Earth (‘76) appeared as a superior alien, so logically, and against his will, society arrested and surgically converted him into a normal human being. A final warning to closet counterculture diehards: “Repent or we’ll cut the rebellion right out of you.”
The first accurate and tragic reflection of Vietnam hit the screen in 1974 in the documentary, Hearts and Minds. Powerful images haunted the viewer. A Vietnamese mother mourned her dead baby on the screen as General William Westmoreland explained in the narrative, “Orientals do not value life as we do.”Columbia refused to release the film, but producer, Bert Schneider managed to slip the film out through Rainbow Productions. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, but few Americans could bear to watch it at the time. We preferred a closed casket funeral.
ROCK & ROLL
Something snapped after Watergate. Stevie Wonder released an angry You Ain’t Done Nothing and Billy Preston confirmed, Nothin’ From Nothin’ (“leaves nothin’”). James accused the Funky President (“People, it’s bad”). The B-side was titled Cold blooded. Al Wilson declared that the time had come to Show and Tell. Country/Western made a rare visit to the LP Top Ten with Charlie Rich’s (“No one knows what goes on…”) Behind Closed Doors (at the Watergate Hotel?) Elton John waved Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road.
The Way We Were topped the charts in 1974. This title cut from a blockbuster movie served as a nostalgic look back to a better time, and captured the mood of the country. On the eve of our bicentennial, Americans looked forward in their rearview mirrors. Jim Croce wanted to catch Time In a Bottle. Happy Days hit the tube and the soundtrack of American Graffiti became the #9 LP of the year. Many retreated even further as Grease premiered on Broadway (where it would continue to run until 1980). “Well, she was just seventeen,” had been the opening line of the B-side of the first Beatles’ 45 in the USA. Now, a decade later, Ringo reached even farther into the cradle for his first solo hit: You’re Sixteen (“You’re beautiful and you’re mine”). Television offered a bittersweet Welcome Back, Kotter (“You’re dreams were your ticket out.”) TV even coaxed Speedy (Alka Seltzer), the Campbell Kids and the Hamm’s Bear out of retirement. Only Mel Brooks bucked the trend with a new TV show called When Things Were Rotten. It flopped.
Hula Hoops and Slinkies came back into style, as did dancing. Thus began Rock & Roll’s darkest hour… the dreaded Disco Era. The genre remains a painful topic for Rock purists, but we cannot ignore an entire period. Death… disease… Disco. Stuff like that happens. There’s nothing we can do about it. Simply put, Disco music is monotonous, mechanical, superficial, emotionless, and devoid of the peaks and valleys that one normally finds in real music. Android Rock would have been a better name. Worse than the crap of the Teen Idol Era (1958-63), when the creation of a hit record still necessitated a small degree of human participation, Disco offered very few live performances in the clubs, and no Superstars emerged in the genre. The dancers became the stars, and these inept amateurs demanded a constant, monotonous beat, between 120 to 160 times per minute, which acted as training wheels for their limited repertoires. The simple-minded music (with a drum machine, and often, one chord per song), and lyrics (“That’s the way uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh”), never disturbed the fragile connection between plodding feet and empty heads. These people bopped to Bandstand as preteens, but now, many pushed thirty, were still single and just plain lonely. Discotheques served as a great place to meet meat and start up a brief, but shallow relationship, based on a mutual appreciation of flashy clothes and boring music. Boomers yearned for a safe place to hide, and possibly a one-night stand. They avoided rebellion, anger, humor and excitement whenever possible. There are no lyrics worth quoting from this musical genre, so I will have to borrow a line from mid-‘70s Soft Rock to help explain the popularity of Disco: “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.”
Android Rock pushed the last mumbles of protest off the pop charts in 1975. The Isley Brothers urged us to Fight the Power, but Earth, Wind and Fire just sighed, That’s the Way of the World. War now asked, Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Average White Band tried to Pick Up the Pieces, and John Denver hid Back Home Again.
1976 will always be remembered as the worst year in the entire history of Rock & Roll… the absolute pits. We heard moans from Donna Summers and experienced the horror of Disco Duck. The new Disco lifestyle overwhelmed many Boomers, and Paul Simon suggested that there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.
The mid-70s had begun with I Know It’s Only Rock & Roll (“But I like it), and in two short years devolved into Disco Duck. How could this happen on our 200th Birthday? And who could have ever imagined that, in the Presidential Election on our bicentennial, one candidate would be an incumbent who we had never elected in the first place, and the other, a peanut farmer/ nuclear physicist who admitted to lusting in his heart and claimed to have once sighted a UFO?
1976 marked another birthday for note: the 18-year-old Freshmen, First Wave Boomers, who, in 1964, proclaimed at Berkeley, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” now crossed over that point of no return.