A long, long time ago
I can still remember
how that music used to make me smile…
Recognize those lyrics? If you are of a certain age (e.g. old) you’ll certainly know them as the opening lines to Don McLean’s epic hit, American Pie. I was thinking about the somewhat cryptic song (McLean has spent a career explaining lyrics like “And while Lenin read a book on Marx, a quartet practiced in the park”), and I thought I’d do a little web research on it. I was taken aback when I realized that American Pie was recorded in 1971 … which, if my math is correct, is 50 years ago. (Full disclosure: it wasn’t a hit until 1972, but stay with me here.)
Nothing quite brings you to the realization that you are getting – or already are – old than learning that a song you remember so well, a song you know every line from, a song that was huge back when you were in junior high school dates back five freakin’ decades.
The fact that American Pie was recorded 50 years ago got me thinking about what other cultural events are marking their 50th anniversary. Be prepared for some shocks, old readers. A surprising amount of the music that was released in 1971 now has (yes, I’m going to say it) iconic status, and mostly because it’s still good, even great.
Carole King‘s album “Tapestry”, with its eternal hits like It’s Too Late, I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, You’ve Got a Friend and others, was released in February 1971. Everyone had “Tapestry” in their album collection (it has sold a staggering 25 million copies), so much so that when a lot of singles became couples, they suddenly found themselves with two copies of it. (Carole King, by the way, turns 79 in February.)
Rod Stewart – who turned 76 last week – released his classic album “Every Picture Tells a Story” in 1971, with hits like Maggie Mae, Reason to Believe and Mandolin Wind. (His early songs are so good, he can be forgiven for Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?)
Carly Simon, the object of so many male fantasies, released her first self-titled album in February, featuring the huge hit That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be, followed by a second album, Anticipation, in November. (Carly turns 76 this year.)
The eternally cool The Doors, led by their even cooler frontman Jim Morrison, released “L.A. Woman” in 1971, an LP (remember those?) that featured Love Her Madly and the ultimate Doors song, Riders on the Storm. (It would be the last we’d hear from The Doors, as Morrison succumbed to rock god disease – a.k.a. a heroin overdose – on July 3, 1971 at the infamous age of 27, joining Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin who died the previous year.) About as far away from The Doors as you can get and still be on the same musical planet, the middle-of-the-road superstars The Carpenters released their most successful album in 1971, with hits like Rainy Days and Mondays, For All We Know and Superstar. In yet another universe, Led Zeppelin released their fourth studio album in November, featuring their signature song, Stairway to Heaven, and its befuddling lyrics (“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, Don’t be alarmed now, It’s just a spring-clean for the May Queen.”)
Janis Joplin released her second solo album, “Pearl”, that year; it would be her last, in that she was already dead. The soon-to-be great funk band Earth, Wind and Fire released their first album, as did The Doobie Brothers. Pink Floyd was doing their thing, and Jethro Tull released “Aqualung”. The Rolling Stones released their album “Sticky Fingers”, with the famous, none-too-subtle zipper cover and one great song, Wild Horses. Although it was released in late 1970, Cat Stevens classic “Tea for the Tillerman” still filled the radio waves with Where do the Children Play, Wild World, Sad Lisa and Father and Son. (Late last year, Stevens – now Yusuf/Cat Stevens – re-imagined the entire album, with sometimes excellent results.) On the Canadian side of the charts, the band Lighthouse released their delightful summer song, One Fine Morning, in July, and Gordon Lightfoot released what is arguably his greatest song, If You Could Read My Mind. And Bill Withers sang Ain’t No Sunshine, and Tom Jones sang She’s a Lady, and Isaac Hayes wrote the Theme from Shaft, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sang about Mr. Bojangles, and Matthew’s Southern Comfort remembered Woodstock, and the Stampeders serenaded a Sweet City Woman, and Donny Osmond sang Go Away Little Girl …
OK, they weren’t all gems.
I really don’t know if 1971 was a typical year for popular music, or just one of those one-of-a-kind miracle years, like Hollywood’s epic 1939 (Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights etc.). But I do know that the staying power of 1971 popular music far exceeds that of TV in 1971, which was mired in middle-of-the-road mediocrities (Mannix, Canon) until the genre-shattering All in the Family made its debut that year. There were some iconic (sorry) films in 1971 – The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Dirty Harry (“Do ya feel lucky, punk?”) – but the music that emanated from our radios that year may well still be heard 50 years from now.
OK, maybe not Go Away Little Girl, but still …