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1970: A year in music

SOPHIA DEBOICK on a year that heard the death knell sound for the hippie era, and saw rock culture take an ominous, sinister turn

It was the most ominous opening to an album ever to be etched on vinyl.

When Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut hit the nation’s turntables on Friday February 13, 1970, the patter of rain, a tolling bell and crashing thunder signalled not just something deeply sinister – a Dennis Wheatley novel made sonic – but sounded the death knell for the hippie generation.

It may have been only six months since Woodstock, but the sound of darkness had arrived. The Manson Family killings of the summer of 1969 and the descent of the Altamont Festival into violence at the close of the year (18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed and killed by a Hells Angel during the Rolling Stones’ set), had suggested the era of peace and love was coming to an end. Now 1970 confirmed its demise.

In April, Paul McCartney announced he had left the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel released Bridge Over Troubled Water then split in acrimony. In September, Jimi Hendrix died in a London flat, and the following month Janis Joplin was found dead in her Hollywood hotel room.

The idealism of the Summer of Love seemed very far away indeed and rock was about to provide a malevolent soundtrack to the changing times.

In October 1969 Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward travelled from their native Birmingham to London with two days of studio time in the offing.

Allowing half that time for mixing, they had just a day to record their debut album, so they just played the material live, often only doing one take, with Osbourne ad-libbing many of the lyrics.

The result was a true original, capturing a moment in time. The theatrical opening of the album led into gothic, tremulous lead guitar and Ozzy Osbourne’s half bellowed, half operatic vocal: ‘What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me.’ At the realisation that this ‘Big black shape with eyes of fire’ is none other than Satan, Osbourne shrieks ‘Oh, no, no, please, God, help me!’ – it was imagery straight out of a horror film.

Along with N.I.B, a hypnotic satanic love song (‘Look into my eyes, you’ll see who I am/ My name is Lucifer, please take my hand’), at one stroke Sabbath established themselves as the dark face of rock.

Their sound was inimitable, Iommi’s heavy-riffing style the result of the false fingertips he wore on his fretting hand after an accident working in a Black Country steel mill. While the album’s raw edges didn’t find favour with critics, it was the alpha point for heavy metal, and the release of Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, in September 1970, with the stark Iron Man, the anti-Vietnam War Pigs and the title track, which came to define Osbourne’s increasingly outlandish frontman persona, confirmed a new mood had descended.

Black Sabbath didn’t single-handedly take rock to the dark side, of course. While the 1960s counterculture had its interest in the occult, evidenced by Aleister Crowley appearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, this was usually in terms of the mind-expanding potential of eastern mysticism rather than references to the forces of evil.

But the Rolling Stones had begun to change that. The most dangerous band in Britain had opened December 1968’s Beggars Banquet with the mesmerising and deeply menacing Sympathy for the Devil, establishing the occult as a theme with currency.

Brian Jones’ interest in pagan ritual had been influential, and his death under mysterious circumstances in the summer in 1969 cast a dark pall over the Stones as the 1970s dawned. Led Zeppelin would take up the occult theme with relish, while also taking things in a heavier direction musically. The stonking riff of Whole Lotta Love had set the bar in late 1969, and October 1970’s Led Zeppelin III began with the Norse paganism-referencing Immigrant Song.

Opening with Robert Plant howling like a banshee, the US single had the Aleister Crowley quote ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ etched on the vinyl, and Jimmy Page’s reputation as rock’s most famous amateur occultist began to be established.

In December 1970 Zeppelin began recording their landmark, Stairway to Heaven-containing fourth album, known as ZoSo after Page’s symbol on the inner sleeve (there was one such esoteric symbol to represent each of the four band members).

This was also the year that Page bought Boleskine House, Crowley’s former home of on the banks of Loch Ness, and a place associated with hauntings and magical rituals.

Deep Purple had a far less flamboyant personal mythology than Zeppelin, but their single Black Night fitted the new mood nonetheless.

Their first and biggest hit, reaching No. 2 in October 1970, the song’s hugely weighty riff confirmed them as the final part of this triptych of heavy bands. Despite the lyrics being deliberately inane (their artistic sensibilities were offended when their record company commanded them to record a hit single, so they set out to sabotage it), they were suggestive of being lost in a perturbing gothic landscape with a ‘dark tree’, ‘a long way from home’, and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was another rock star known to dabble in the occult.

Even David Bowie had a stab at this heavier, proto-metal sound on The Man Who Sold the World, which got its US release in November. With Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti duelling on guitar and bass, and the album’s bass-heavy mix, it was a bold, Sabbath-influenced sound, as was hinted at in the track title Black Country Rock.

While Bowie’s lyrics focussed more on futuristic dystopian nightmares than supernatural ones, The Width of a Circle was inspired by the hellish hallucinations of his mentally ill half-brother: ‘He struck the ground a cavern appeared/ And I smelt the burning pit of fear… His nebulous body swayed above/ His tongue swollen with devil’s love… Sitting sentry, horned and tailed’.

Despite his flowing tresses and dresses, Bowie was well on the way to abandoning any semblance of hippiedom.

In cinema, things were turning very dark indeed. The release of six Hammer horror films, including two starring Christopher Lee as Dracula, and Cromwell, with its executions, mutilations and plenty of witch finder general Puritan get-up, were just for starters.

Whereas sex and drugs had been liberating forces to the flower children, they became thoroughly malignant in the most controversial films of the year. Nicolas Roeg’s directorial debut, Performance, released in August, put Mick Jagger centre stage (he appeared in the melancholy, monochrome Ned Kelly the same year) and set sexual and drug experimentation in the toxic context of gang violence. Stanley Kubrick picked up that theme when he began filming A Clockwork Orange in London in September, and production of Ken Russell’s The Devils had already begun.

Ostensibly about the historical persecution of priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) for the demonic possession of a convent in 17th-century France, The Devils was a parable for the political reality of the modern world – religious hypocrisy, abuse of power and the use of fear as a weapon.

Grandier’s final burning at the stake as the town’s walls are blown up was a visual rendering of political despair. Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers, released in December, dealt with sex as horror.

In the central scene, set on his boozy honeymoon, the composer (Richard Chamberlain) is overcome with homosexual revulsion as the passed out, naked body of his new wife (Glenda Jackson) rolls around the floor of their violently lurching train cabin. It was all a long way from innocently bare-breasted, frolicking hippies.

Women and sexuality was the theme of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, published that year. While the Equal Pay Act became law in 1970, it wouldn’t come into force until 1975, and it was a year in which second wave feminism became more urgent.

Greer became the vibrant and confrontational public face of the women’s liberation movement, and Kate Millett’s seminal work of feminist literary criticism, Sexual Politics, was published.

In November, the first Page 3 girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Khan, appeared in the Sun and the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall was disrupted by protestors, their flour bombs sending host Bob Hope dashing for cover backstage.

Indeed, the social and political battles of the 1960s had not yet been won.

The first gay pride marches took place in the US in the wake of the previous year’s Stonewall riots and the Gay Liberation Front formed at the London School of Economics in October.

There was some withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, but more than 6,000 were killed as the war rumbled on.

The counterculture that had developed in the most intense years of Vietnam hadn’t died overnight. A record 600,000 attended the Isle of Wight Festival, headlined by Jimi Hendrix, in August 1970, an event emblematic of the peace and love generation. The guitarist died two days before the following month’s Worthy Farm Pop Festival, the very first Glastonbury Festival, where arch hippies Tyrannosaurus Rex, shortly to release their hit Ride a White Swan, were last minute stand-ins for original headliners The Kinks.

But the release of the Jesus Christ Superstar album the same month, with its Christ-as-hippie conceit and songs by Time Rice and Andrew lloyd-Webber, suggested the commodification of this once alternative culture, and in casting Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan in the lead role, it ceded to the heavy rock revolution.

There was plenty of anodyne culture about in 1970. Dana won Eurovision for Ireland with All Kinds of Everything, the breezy In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry was the biggest selling single of the year and the heart-warming The Railway Children hit cinemas.

When the avuncular Ted Heath took office in June he promised a ‘quiet revolution’. Instead unemployment, a financial crash, strikes and an energy crisis were the fruits of his premiership, and the grim 1970s would have little of the optimism of the decade that preceded it.

The dark hymns and violent riffs of 1970 would prove an apt soundtrack to the coming era.

Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick

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