Life, December 1, 1992

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The 70's

Tony Kornheiser


... gaaacck! — for three-piece leisure suits and platform heels. All of a sudden everyone wanted to dance. Disco fever overwhelmed the pop culture. Ken Tucker, writing in the encyclopedic Rock of Ages, says we shouldn't be surprised: "In the previous decade, rock was the stuff of the counter-culture: In the 1970s... this music was the culture." We can only be thankful Elvis was dead by this time, and we were spared the horrifying spectacle of the King doing a John Travolta finger-point on "Stayin' Alive."

It would be nice to think that punk came along to save us from disco, but punk was equally — not to mention literally — vomitous. It began as an underground sadomasochistic aerobic workout in New York clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Punk removed the psychedelic trappings of art rock and kept only the anger and discord. Punk bands prided themselves on not knowing how to play, a conceit you hope never spreads to the airline industry. The Ramones were the most famous American punk rockets, and to this day nobody has any idea what they were singing because the music was so loud and dissonant, the words unintelligible — just as well, probably. Patti Smith, who didn't shave under her arms, was a punk goddess. Blondie had the sensuous lead singer Debbie Harry; Richard Hell and the Voidoids had a great name; Talking Heads had true talent — and everybody had staples in their faces. (I hate when that happens.) Reversing the Atlantic crossings of the '60s, punk became bigger in England than it was here. The best act to come out of British punk was the complicated Elvis Costello; the most celebrated was the self-destructive Sex Pistols. All you had to know about them was two names: Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Case closed.

I shouldn't leave the impression that I didn't like anything in the '70s. I did, particularly the lyrics. O.K., they were often egocentric, but I'm a sucker for the singer-songwriters who produced songs aimed at your mind, not just your dancing feet. Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, Carole King and Boz Scaggs and the wisecracking king of suburbia, Billy Joel. And Bruce Springsteen, of course. Maybe it wasn't a great decade for rock and roll, but it was a necessary retrenching from storming the barricades in the '60s. And heaven knows, it was better than the dreck of the '80s.

Except for "Stairway to Heaven."

So, looking back, what are we left with? Diversity. A decade a mile wide and an inch deep. A decade that had the bad luck to follow a legend, to be Larry Holmes when the crowd was screaming for Muhammad Ali. A decade of restless experimentation that gave us many fine moments, but overall left an indiscriminating impression — a little like the moving finger, which, having writ, moves on. A decade unlike the '60s, which said we're all in this together; a decade that said we're all in this alone.

Oh, sure, you can say I'm just a bitter guy in my forties, longing for the music I grew up on — but I bet I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers.


Life, December 1, 1992

EC is mentioned in Life magazine's 40 Years of Rock & Roll issue.


1992-12-01 Life page 88.jpg
Page scan.

Photo by Terry O'Neill.
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1992-12-01 Life cover.jpg


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