December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

The day the 1970s died

4 min read
The 1970s were a stormy decade in politics and music and Tony McMahon sets out to find how the 1970s died
1970s died

There’s a moment in an episode of The Simpsons when Homer says he remembers when the 60s died – pauses – sighs – “the 31st December, 1969”. Decades are arbitrary ways of dividing up history. The 1960s was really two or three eras in a ten-year period. And so it was with the 1970s. Though, when it ended – as Homer might say on the 31st December 1979 – there was a sense that something unique was coming to a close.

I think most of us left the 1970s with mixed feelings. Put crudely, it started glittery and sparkling. Sagged in the middle. And ended with a punk snarl. But already by 1979, we were looking at a major break with that decade. In the US and UK, right-wing ideologues had won elections. Reagan in America and Thatcher in Britain.

One historian – who I don’t normally rate – opined that most people in 1979 just wanted things to work better. While a minority on both the hard-left and hard-right wanted an end to the post-war consensus. Unlike the historian in question, I was walking and talking in 1979 as opposed to sitting in a cot. But I’ll give him 6/10 for that analysis.

Tories and Trots thought their moment had come in 1979. Thatcherite Tories dreamed of ‘rolling back the state’, crushing the trades unions and overthrowing the 1960s ‘permissive’ society revolution. Marxists of the Trotsky-influenced persuasion said: bring it on. Let’s have unbridled class warfare. Far from being dismayed by Thatcher, they saw a resolute defender of capitalism against whom they would have a clearly defined enemy/target.

DISCOVER: The 1980s Mod Revival

The 1970s died in Iran and Afghanistan

1979 was a year of global turmoil. A seemingly fitting end to what had been a stormy decade. The Shah of Iran was overthrown and replaced by a theocratic, Islamist republic whose first act was to hold employees of the American Embassy in Teheran as hostages. A huge nuclear accident occurred at Three Mile Island in the United States heralding what would be a massive revival in the anti-nuclear movement at the start of the 1980s. The USSR invaded Afghanistan – a move that none of us would have predicted would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years later and the end of the Cold War.

Events in Iran impacted the supply of oil. Inflation in Britain soared to 17% and interest rates to over 12%. Which is why Boomers smile when people panic these days about interest rates that are still in single figures. Little could anybody have imagined that Thatcher would pursue an economic policy – monetarism – leading to a massive collapse of manufacturing in the country that brought you the Industrial Revolution. This would permanently transform the nation’s industrial heartlands, leaving some as economic deserts for many years. Unemployment began to rise alarmingly – especially among the young.

Yet – strange to say – there was a mood of excitement. Change was in the air. And if the mid-70s had taught us anything – it was better for something to be happening than nothing at all. In cultural terms, the period from punk’s bursting on to the scene in 1976 through to – let’s say – 1983 was one of fizzy experimentation in British pop. Some have argued it outstrips the late 1960s in terms of significance and creativity. One youth cult after another rose and fell, normally within an 18-month period. New Wave, New Romantic, New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 2Tone, Mod Revival, Rockabilly Revival, Psychedelic Revival – and so it went on and on…

In a pre-digital age – music, TV and the movies had huge importance for us. Music especially shaped our identities. For my own part, I transitioned from punk to New Wave to disco to NWOBHM to 2Tone and New Romantic within a three year period! By 1979, the quest to fill the vacuum left by punk’s implosion two years before was still on. Post-punk and New Wave created some amazing bands. Many had a very political flavour.

The night the 1970s died

In 1979, a gig at the Lyceum theatre in London was hailed by the NME as the end of the 1970s. Stiff Little Fingers, Gang of Four, Human League, The Fall and The Mekons were the future – an excited journalist declared. As ever, the NME got it about half right. In fact, that line up tells us more about the late 70s than the decade ahead. The Human League – with a changed line up – would indeed bestride the early 80s like a mighty musical colossus. I saw The Fall at Eric’s in Liverpool around 1982 – quite amazing – and Gang of Four were brilliant in their time. The Mekons were purveyors of something called “cowpunk” that blended country and western with punk.

The pop charts ended the decade though with Pink Floyd in the number one slot. They had just released their concept album: The Wall. Vic Reeves once described it as the last great prog rock album. The band were easily the biggest group in the world at this point outselling even the mighty Michael Jackson into the 1980s. They had begun the 1970s emerging from psychedelia with tracks like Atom Heart Mother. They ended triumphant having emerged unscathed by punk’s brutal assault on prog rock and the number one single Another Brick in the Wall being a strong song of protest about a Britain that needed to change.

The night the 70s ended - says the NME
The night the 70s ended – says the NME

2 thoughts on “The day the 1970s died

  1. The Mekons weren’t American. They came from Leeds, and were originally a fairly ramshackle punk outfit. Over the years they went in all sorts of musical directions, including American-influenced country music. If that’s the sort of stuff they played at this gig, quite possibly they did come across as an American band. It must’ve been a very early manifestation of their country influences – they didn’t make a country album until 1985.

    1. I stand corrected – always good to be informed. You’re right – I did detect the American flavour but drew the wrong conclusion. I’ve got a distinct feeling I saw them two or three times in the early 80s so maybe caught different manifestations.

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