Depending on what your major concerns are, that period means different things. For many people, it was revolution, civil rights, the peace movement. For many others, it was music.
For Michael Walker, it was evidently the latter. In his new book, What You Want Is In The Limo, he chronicles what he considers the End of the Sixties through the 1973 tours of three major rock groups—The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper.
His claim, as summarized in the interview linked above, is that after Woodstock, the music industry realized how much money could be made with this noisy kid stuff (which by Woodstock it no longer was—kid stuff, that is) and started investing heavily, expanding the concert scene, turning it from a “cottage industry” into the mega-million-dollar monster it has become. 1973, according to Walker, is the year all this peaked for the kind of music that had dominated The Sixties, made the turn into rock star megalomania, and ushered in the excesses of the later Seventies and the crash-and-burn wasteland of the Punk and New Wave eras (with a brief foray into Disco and cocaine before the final meltdown).
The bands he chose are emblematic, certainly, but of the end of the Sixties? I agree with him that 1973 is the year the Sixties ended, but the music aspect, as always, was merely a reflection, not a cause. What happened in 1973 that brought it all to an ignominious close was this: Vietnam ended.
(Yes, I know we weren’t out until 1975, but in 1972 Nixon went to China, which resulted in the shut-down of the South China rail line by which Russia had been supplying North Vietnam, and in 1973 the draft ended, effectively deflating a goodly amount of the rage over the war. The next year and a half were wind-down.)
Walker’s analysis of the cultural differences before and after 1973 are solid, but while the money was certainly a factor, a bigger one is exhaustion. After a decade of upheaval over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, people were tired. Vietnam ended and everyone went home. Time to party. Up to that point, the music—the important music, the music of heft and substance—was in solidarity with the social movements and protest was a major component of the elixir. Concerts were occasions for coming together in a common aesthetic, the sounds that distinguished Woodstock acting as a kind of ur-conscious bubble, binding people together in common cause.
Once the primary issues seemed settled, the music was just music for many people, and the aspects which seemed to have informed the popularity of groups like Cream or the Stones or the Doors lost touch with the zeitgeist. What had begun as an industry of one-hit wonders returned to that ethic and pseudo-revolutionary music began to be produced to feed the remaining nostalgia.
(Consider, for example, a group like Chicago, which began as socially-conscious, committed-to-revolution act—they even made a statement to that effect on the inside cover of their second album—and yet by 1975 were cashing in on power ballads and love songs, leaving the heavily experimental compositions of their first three albums behind and eschewing their counter-culture sensibilities.)
To my mind the album that truly signified the end of that whole era was The Moody Blues Seventh Sojourn, which was elegaic from beginning to end. The last cut, I’m Just A Singer In A Rock’n’Roll Band, was a rejection of the mantle bestowed on many groups and performers during the Sixties of guru. With that recording, the era was—for me—over.
Also for me, Alice Cooper never signified anything beyond the circus act he was. Solid tunes, an edgy stage act, and all the raw on-the-road excess that was seen by many to characterize supergroups, but most of Cooper’s music was vacuous pop-smithing. The Who and Led Zeppelin were something else and both of them signify much more in artistic terms. Overreach.
But interestingly enough, different kinds of overreach. Walker talks of the self-indulgence of 45-minute solos in the case of Zeppelin, but this was nothing new—Cream had set the standard for seemingly endless solos back in 1966 and Country Joe McDonald produced an album in the Nineties with extended compositions and solos. Quadraphenia was The Who’s last “great” album, according to Walker, and I tend to agree, but two kinds of exhaustion are at work in these two examples. Zeppelin exhausted themselves in the tours and the 110% performances. The Who exhausted the form in which they worked. After Quadraphenia, all they could do was return to a formula that had worked well before, but which now gained them no ground in terms of artistic achievement. As artistic statement—as an example of how far they could push the idiom—that album was a high watermark that still stands. But the later Who Are You? is possibly their best-crafted work after Who”s Next. “Greatness”—whatever that means in this context—had not abandoned them. But the audience had changed. Their later albums were money-makers with the occasional flash of brilliance. They were feeding the pop machine while trying to compose on the edge, a skill few manage consistently for any length of time.
“Excess” is an interesting term as well. Excess in what? The combination of social movement with compositional daring had a moment in time. When that time passed, two audiences parted company. Those who wanted to party (often nostalgically) and those who were truly enamored of music as pure form. They looked across the divide at each other and the accusation of excess was aimed by each at different things. The one disdained the social excess of the other while the latter loathed the musical excess of the former. People gleefully embracing Journey, disco, punk, and a gradually resurgent country-western genre thought the experimental explorations of the post-Sixties “art rock” scene were self-indulgent, elitist, and unlistenable. People flocking to Yes and Emerson,Lake & Palmer concerts, cuing up Genesis and UK on their turntables, (and retroactively filling out their classical collections) found the whole disco scene and designer-drug culture grotesque. Yet in many ways they had begun as the same social group, before the End of the Sixties.
The glue that had bound them together evaporated with the end of the political and social issues that had produced the counterculture and its attendant musical reflection in the first place. Without that glue, diaspora.
And the forms keep breaking down into smaller and smaller categories, which is in its own way a kind of excess. The excess of pointless selectiveness.