Music history of the United States in the 1970s  

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20th century American music

The 1960s and 1970s were a tumultuous period for the United States, with the Cold War, Vietnam War and Civil Rights causing massive public unrest. Music became innately tied up into causes, opposing certain ideas, influenced by the sexual revolution, feminism, Black Power and environmentalism.

Central to this trend was a folk roots revival that inspired a wave of similar trends across Europe and the rest of the world. This stemmed from a revival of hillbilly music early in the decade, and drew on Appalachian folk-pop pioneers The Weavers. Singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez broke new ground in lyrical approach and personal style in composition, setting the stage for the next wave of lighter, country and R&B influenced singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Elton John, Carole King and Cat Stevens, who began topping the charts in the very early 1970s.

The 60s began with soul music topping the charts, including pure soul divas and singers specializing in the new, R&B-gospel fusion with a secular approach. Later specialities in soul cropped up, including girl groups, blue-eyed soul, brown-eyed soul, Memphis soul, Philly soul and, most popular, Motown. The last part of the decade saw soul singer-songwriters like Marvin Gaye invent album-oriented soul, and James Brown and his ever-evolving backing band invent funk.

Country music in the 1960s was dominated by the Nashville Sound until Merle Haggard changed the national country sound to the Bakersfield Sound. For a time, the Bakersfield Sound was the only homegrown music that could compete in sales against an influx of British bands; this was called the British Invasion, and it sparked a new wave of music and social activism. Psychedelic rock arose from this subculture, which opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights and other generally leftist causes. While the energy in this scene remained strong for some time, it soon splintered into competing heavy metal, early art-punk rock and progressive rock.

The 1970s saw various forms of pop music dominating the charts. Often characterized as being shallow, 70s pop took many forms and could be seen as a reaction against the high-energy and activist pop of the previous decade. It began with singer-songwriters like Carole King and Carly Simon topping the charts, while New York City saw a period of great innovation; hip hop, punk rock and salsa were invented in 70s New York, which was also a center for electronic music, techno and disco.

By the middle of the decade, various trends were vying for popular success. Sly & the Family Stone's pop-funk had spawned singers like Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, alongside George Clinton's spacy P Funk extravaganzas. Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band led a wave of country rock bands while David Bowie and other British performers saw glam rock gain success. Light progressive-rock bands like Kansas, Journey, Chicago and Styx had long-running popularity. Bruce Springsteen garnered critical acclaim during much of the decade, finally breaking through in a big way very late in the 70s. Disco, especially The Bee Gees, was dominating the charts the last few years of the decade, while punk rock and other genres were developing underground.


Diversification of pop music

In the early to mid-1960s, soul music and R&B dominated American audiences. Girl groups (The Angels ("My Boyfriend's Back"), The Shirelles ("Dedicated to the One I Love") and blue eyed soul (The Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"), Mitch Ryder ("Devil With a Blue Dress On")) helped to popularize the music as mainstream, as well as polishing it and removing the grit of gospel. With the popularity of Elvis and other white singers (like Gene Vincent ("Be-Bop-A-Lula"), Roy Acuff ("The Wreck on the Highway"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") and Chet Atkins ("Mr. Sandman"), as well as black vocalists like Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti"), Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode"), Fats Domino ("The Fat Man") and Chubby Checker ("The Twist"), a new generation of teens began playing in their own rock bands. The 1960s also saw the arrival of Mexican-American pop, rock and soul acts that drew upon Tejano and other influences. These include Sunny Ozuna ("Talk to Me", "Reina de mi Amor"), Roberto Pulido y Los Clasicos and Latin Breed.

White rock music developed primarily in two places: southern California, where musicians like Dick Dale (Surfers' Choice) invented surf rock, and Britain, where mod and Merseybeat bands (such as The Who (The Who Sings My Generation) and The Rolling Stones) (The Rolling Stones (England's Newest Hitmakers)) began playing their own version of rock that drew more heavily upon American blues pioneers like Bo Diddley ("Mona" (aka "I Need You Baby")), Howlin' Wolf ("Evil"), Muddy Waters ("I Be's Troubled") and Jimmy Yancey ("The Fives") than their American counterparts, who mostly played a polished form of pop.

The early 1960s saw four centers of American musical innovation:

Invention of psychedelia

In addition, Britain's new generation of blues rock gained popularity in parts of their homeland, especially cities like Liverpool, and cult fame in the States. The popularity of folk singers like Peter, Paul & Mary ("Puff the Magic Dragon") and Bob Dylan (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) influenced all of these groups as they became more closely aligned with the counterculture and drugs. The national sound was moving towards an electric, psychedelic version of rock. In 1962 (see 1962 in music), The Beatles (Please Please Me) emerged from England and popularized British rock, while The Beach Boys' success brought harmony-laden surf music to the forefront of the American scene. With country and soul musicians unable to maintain their hipness, both faded from mass consciousness.

The mid-1960s saw the collapse of The Beach Boys as a result of singer and songwriter Brian Wilson's mental problems after releasing one of the most influential rock albums in history, Pet Sounds. As the British Invasion died down, The Beatles created a radical new look and sound which helped bring the Psychedelic movement to the mainstream. The Psychedelic music was a revolutionary sound heavily influenced by drugs, primarily LSD. With the hippie movement beginning to take center stage and the Summer of Love in San francisco, Pyschedelic music began to enter the public's knowledge. The first American Band that introduced and even revolutionized the sound was Jefferson Airplane. Their 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow is considered to be the quintessential album of the movement along with The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Doors debut album. Another band considered to be founders of the movement were the Grateful Dead, the first jam band, and considered to be considered the first cult act.

The Psychedelic scene went into full circle with the Monterey Pop Festival. Not only did it feature popular acts of the time such as Jefferson Airplane and The Who, but it also introduced two of the greatest rockers of the movement and arguably in rock history: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (who was the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Time). The concert also saw was the closing of the popular The Mamas and the Papas whose more pop/folk sound was beginning to be overshadowed by the hard rock bands. Psychedelia-inflected rock dominated black and white audiences. During this period, most of American musical styles for the next forty years began in one form or another, including heavy metal, punk rock, electronic music and hip hop. Perhaps most importantly were two developments. First was the popularization of the LP as a distinct artistic statement. Prior to the early 1960s (and later in most cases), an LP was nothing more than a collection of singles bound together with filler. As the psychedelic revolution progressed, however, lyrics grew more complex and LPs developed to enable the artists to make a more in depth statement than a single song could allow. In addition, rules as to what could be allowed in popular music were lessened -- singles lasted longer than three minutes (Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was the first of these); singing could be gruff, guttural and not classically beautiful and lyrics could focus on more than simple tales of youth, love songs and ballads to include politically and socially aware lyrics. The idea that popular music could and should change the way one feels and lead social change largely developed during this period, though it was certainly not unheard of before.

Funk, gospel and album-oriented soul

Black music in the late 1960s diversified. Soul music had arisen as a secularized form of gospel music. With the rise of psychedelia and folk, however, artists that had previously been best-sellers found themselves unpopular with the new sound. Many, such as The Supremes and The Miracles, never fully recovered, unable to adjust to the changes in music. Others, like the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield's The Impressions, abandoned their original sounds almost completely to adapt to new trends, continuing their momentum into the early 1970s.

Soul music, led at the time by singers like James Brown ("(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine"), developed into psychedelia-influenced funk. Bands like Parliament (The Mothership Connection), War (All Day Music) and Funkadelic (One Nation Under a Groove) merged soul with psychedelic rock to cult acclaim but little popular success. Meanwhile, Sly & the Family Stone (Stand!) and similar acts achieved popular success with their mixture of soul and psychedelia.

Pure soul adapted to the new face of popular music by expanding beyond the simple lyricism of singles to more cohesive and socially-aware, album-oriented soul. This is usually said to have begun with the success of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Curtis Mayfield's Super Fly soundtrack. They both described the gritty realities of ghetto life with funky, danceable beats and led to the dominant sounds of soul in the 1970s, such as Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff's Philadelphia soul.

Nonsecularized gospel was still popular, though not near the levels of the 1950s boom. Reverend James Cleveland was the most influential artist of the period; he introduced choirs to gospel with 1962's Peace Be Still, recorded with the Angelic Choir of Nutley from New Jersey. Six years later he founded the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America, which have spread across the world. Edwin Hawkins ("Oh Happy Day") was another major artist of the period. Beginning with artists like Ray Repp in 1964, a slick soft rock and gospel fusion called Christian Contemporary Music (or CCM) became popular, which helped lead the way for future rock Christian artists including light country star Amy Grant and Christian heavy metal pioneers Stryper.

Progressive, punk and heavy metal

A few bands popular among only a small crowd of devoted followers emerged in the late 1960s. The Nice (The Nice) and The Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed) (both British) began releasing a series of complex, classical tinged concept albums that began a sound known as progressive rock. Other British bands like Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin) and Black Sabbath (Paranoid) emerged with a form of hard-edged electric blues that came to be known as heavy metal music. American bands like The Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat), Blue Cheer (Vincebus Eruptum) and The Stooges (Raw Power) also emerged with fatalistic, artsy lyrics and a fast-driving energetic sound; this was the beginning of punk rock.

Country, newgrass and folk

In the 1960s, the Bakersfield Sound began its rise to mainstream, led by Merle Haggard. Bands like Muleskinner and Old and in the Way invented a progressive form of bluegrass that came to be known as newgrass. Though this never achieved much mainstream success, newgrass has become a major part of the American country scene. New forms, including spacegrass and supergrass, arose in the 80s, and remained low-key.

The rise of the Bakersfield Sound was a popular example of a roots revival in folk music, in which artists and audiences revitalize the traditional music forms of their ancestors, generally as a reaction against dilution of the original culture for mainstream acceptance. In the 1960s and 70s, roots revivals occurred across the globe. The United States saw Appalachian folk music, blues and jazz adapt to rock and roll, forming heavy metal, psychedelia and progressive rock. Other folk forms were also popularized as part of a 1960s roots revival, including Cajun and Hawaiian folk. Cajun music entered the national mainstream for the first time (mostly in the form of cover songs called swamp pop), becoming a fixture at the influential Newport Folk Festival. CoDoFiL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), founded in 1968, helped to lead this trend, establishing the Festivals Acadiens and Zydeco Festival, for example. Cajun artists during this period included the Balfa Brothers, D. L. Menard, Eddie LeJeune, Michael Doucet's Beausoleil and Barry Jean Ancelet.


In the early 1970s, singer-songwriters like James Taylor ("Fire and Rain") and Carole King (Tapestry) topped the charts while prog rock, heavy metal and punk began to differentiate themselves from mainstream music. While most singer-songwriters drew on Anglo folk roots, some drew on their Native American origins, following in the path of pioneers like Buffy Sainte-Marie ("Now That the Buffalo's Gone"); other Native American bands like XIT (Plight of the Redman) and Redbone, fused Native American and rock influences. The mid-1970s saw the development of power pop, the marriage of glam and heavy metal to form glam metal and the emergence of disco. By the late 1970s, disco, an electronically-based dance music, dominated the sound of the US, aided by the breakthrough success of Saturday Night Fever. Originally associated with urban blacks and gay white males, disco spent a few years at the top of the charts just as country rock and prog rock achieved their greatest mainstream success. Country rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd (Second Helping) and pop-prog bands like Chicago (Chicago II) and Styx (Kilroy Was Here) dominated the portion of the market not listening to disco with long, bizarre progressive pieces and electric blues based southern rock. At the time, outlaw country artists like Willie Nelson (The Red Headed Stranger) and David Allan Coe ("You Never Even Called Me By Name") dominated the country music charts with tales of cowboys and rebels.

The Hard Rock sound that was formed in the late 1960s dominated the decade. Led Zeppelin became a worldwide phenomenon with albums like Led Zeppelin IV. Former Psychedelic rockers Pink Floyd began experimenting with different musical sounds and philosophical lyrics and went on to be one of the most critically and commercially successful bands of the decade. Their influential album Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best selling records in music history. Former blues band Fleetwood Mac, began to change their sound to rock and added American musicians Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. They went on to become one of the most popular and successful bands of the decade and released the legendary Rumours in 1977, which spent weeks on top of the charts. Another former psychedelic rocker who achieved commercial success in the decade was Steve Miller whose album Fly Like An Eagle topped the charts in the mid 70's. The decade also introduced the Blue Öyster Cult who achieved mainstream success with their hit single Don't Fear the Reaper. Other rock bands who were influential and popular in the time include Aerosmith, Heart, and Van Halen, all of whom found further success in the next decade.

Underground trends

Heavy metal bands like KISS (Alive!) began to attract mainstream attention, while punk influenced the developing glam rock scene. Taking its cue from the energetic, dirty psychedelia of The Doors, glam musicians like David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) rose to prominence among segments of the population in the early 1970s.

Jamaican immigrants, most notably including DJ Kool Herc, moved to New York City and brought with them the practice of speaking over isolated percussion breaks from popular songs during long dance parties called block parties; this was the beginning of hip hop. Meanwhile, Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians drew on mambo and other Cuban genres to form salsa music. Early artists included Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón.

Jewish-American musicians launched a revival of klezmer music in the mid-1970s, led by Berkeley, California's The Klezmorim, Boston's Klezmer Conservatory Band, and New York's Henry Sapoznik who formed the Archive of Recorded Sound at the Institute for Jewish Research in New York City and founded the KlezKamp festival, where stars like Howie Lees, Max Epstein and Sid Beckerman taught and played.

The roots of world music, a fusion of rock, pop and other Western music with traditional folk from around the world, arose in the 1970s. Taj Mahal's Happy to Be Just Like I Am (1972), Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Ry Cooder's 1976 Chicken Skin Music (with Flaco Jiménez and Gabby Pahinui) helped to launch the genre, which was solidified in 1981 with David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

The late 1970s also saw the coalescence of what eventually became known as punk music. Arty singers like Patti Smith (Horses) and grungy bands like The Ramones (The Ramones) emerged from New York, based out of the popular club CBGB's. Just as The Clash (The Clash) and the Sex Pistols (Nevermind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols) defined and popularized the sound of punk in the UK, a similar scene was developing throughout the US. In the early 1980s, disco died a quick death. The popular reaction against disco was swift and final, and the music had ended its reign of commercial influence by 1982 (see 1982 in music). New Wave filled in as the dominant American sound. It had developed out of arty punk bands like the Talking Heads (More Songs About Buildings and Food), and was popularized by Depeche Mode (Speak and Spell), Duran Duran (Rio) and others.

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