No wonder people said it was as if gods walked among us again. Yeah, I know, that idea was mocked even in the day. But let’s be clear and not mistake the metaphor. If by ‘gods’ you mean humans who happened to be born under that lucky confluence of stars, that one in a million combination of sheer originality and talent oozing from every pore, then yes, rock’s classic era was chock-a-block with ‘gods.’ The early to mid-Seventies produced music as enduring and brilliant as Mozart, Beethoven, and any other classical composer you care to name. For sheer invention, the explosion of musical development during this period is unparalleled. Seldom had so many musical styles been fused into one great genre—rock ’n roll. You could find anything there—from blues and R&B to jazz, classical, experimental and traditional music, all under cover of a phalanx of smokin’ guitar bands.
It was the heyday of exploding boundaries—creativity had its full reign in music. There was Yes, seamlessly blending Brahms with prog rock. Genesis, with its roots deep in the mythic traditions of storytelling, fusing the sensibilities of British folk and classical with cultural history. Santana going off at Woodstock with a sonic boom, injecting the rhythms of Latin America in rock. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath reinventing the blues as hard rock and heavy metal. The Stones mixing up country blues and soul with British First Wave rock. David Bowie introducing theatre to rock ’n roll with ‘glam rock,’ reminding everyone that, yes kids, it’s a show. And who couldn’t love an artist who changed colours before our very eyes? All while producing some of the most enchanting, memorable songs I’ve ever heard. Of course, gods—being merely our own reflection—blossom and then slowly decline in the inevitable way of all flesh. This is the great tragedy.
And if anyone embodied the brash, imaginative leaps into the unknown using only a handful of instruments, it was Queen. Queen had a delayed entry onto the progressive rock scene in the heady days of 1970-75. Due to record company reluctance to sign them, their masterful first album Queen didn’t appear until 1973, though the band was formed in 1970. As if unleashing pent-up energy the band then released a second masterpiece, Queen II (1974), followed quickly by the equally brilliant Sheer Heart Attack, setting the mold into which the massively successful A Night at the Opera would be poured. The lyrics on the first three albums drew heavily on elements of classical mythology and British literary tradition, creating a rich tapestry draped over crunching guitars, choir-perfect harmonies, and soft, poignant strokes of piano. Freddie Mercury’s voice was born to scale the musical heights. Well before Bohemian Rhapsody—as in the alternately menacing and simpering performance of Liar on the first album—Mercury showed his brilliance. In fact, I think David Byron of Uriah Heep was at least as capable for sheer range and expressiveness. But as often happens with history, even the best can be unjustly forgotten in the vagaries of the marketplace.
The Greek trickster god Pan was only one of many roles Mercury indulged. And like Pan he certainly relished taunting and even insulting his audiences on occasion. Like that mischievous sprite one never quite knew if he was joking. He could lead the crowd in his call and response vocal pirouettes one moment and turn his ass on them the next. While in Queen’s early career Mercury slipped effortlessly into the mantle of glam rock superstar, the later, more commercial Queen also featured a Freddie Mercury who strutted and teased, occasionally teetering on the edge of parody. Some might call it camp but arch would be my word. Or did he just decide the complex, unconventional songs of the first four records were too much work? As with any trickster figure, it’s hard to tell for sure. Certainly the scathing lyrics of Flick of the Wrist (Sheer Heart Attack) and Death on Two Legs (A Night at the Opera) dripped with cynicism about the music business. Yet by the late ’70s the band clearly decided it was time to write Top 40 friendly songs. That was where they lost fans like me but gained millions of new ones.
It struck me the other day that many of the groups I grew up listening to were exploring themes of mythology and legend in their songs. It was a refreshing change from “Baby, baby, baby…Ooh-ooh…” Queen with songs like Great King Rat, March of the Black Queen, In the Lap of the Gods. Uriah Heep with The Magician’s Birthday and The Wizard. Bowie explored this terrain in early songs like The Man Who Sold the World and The Supermen, though these ruminations on otherworldly beings would continue to permeate his work. Bowie was among the most original of lyricists, who gave as much attention to his words as to his musical arrangements. He either dabbled in myth or made up his own, steeping classicism in the lyrical pastiche of the Beat poets. For millennia humans have been told these stories, why shouldn’t gifted musicians tell them too? Even Led Zeppelin, fuelled by Jimmy Page’s occult readings, would venture into mythic territory, though arguably less effectively. Then again, Stairway to Heaven could hardly be considered a fail. Not hard to imagine that being sung in the Elysian Fields.
While it seems to be hip now to mock those lyrical tropes, the truth is it was a helluva lot more interesting than listening to doo-wop and the formulaic banality of commercial radio. Don’t get me wrong—rockers in the Seventies were every bit as susceptible to the ‘baby, baby’ lure of massive cash. But at least there was enough artistic freedom to put out music as widely diverse as Nick Drake and Captain Beefheart. On FM radio you could hear songs as corny and basic as Sweet’s Fox on the Run followed by a piece as musically challenging as Roundabout by Yes. Those were the halcyon days of FM, when the DJ would put on a whole LP side of music before interrupting with his jabber. I recall hearing Dark Side of the Moon that way more than once. Speaking of music that will last for generations…
Was it something in the water? And I don’t mean ‘acid’ of the Purple Haze variety. Drugs certainly opened the door to musical experimentation, and thank God they did. John Lennon made it clear that after Dylan introduced them to marijuana, the Beatles’ music took the quantum leap into timeless albums like Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and beyond. As comedian George Carlin once explained in an interview on drugs, they do open doors one never knew existed, as Aldous Huxley articulated in The Doors of Perception. Unfortunately the harder drugs also subject the user to the law of steadily diminishing returns. And while we’re talking drugs, let it be known that at least as many rock stars died from legal drugs and booze than from street drugs.
Was it something in the air that fostered the Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll? A sudden genetic bonanza of musical genius? Planetary alignments? A rare historical confluence of general economic prosperity combined with social pressures? An even more rare corporate willingness to consider and promote new forms of music? All of the above and more, I’m sure. Whatever it was, it led to a great renaissance in modern music that has yet to be equalled.