Rupert Christiansen

Not all Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Text settings

Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade

Howard Sounes

Simon & Schuster, pp. 472, £

Born in 1965, Howard Sounes was scarcely out of short trousers by the time that Margaret Thatcher took power and kicked us out of the mire of complacent consensus and began to crush the tyranny of the unions. Perhaps his vivacious and enjoyable new book about the culture of the Seventies does romanticise ‘a low dishonest decade’ that he did not fully experience, but there is something to be said for his refusal to follow the common view that it was an era merely ‘amusingly stupid and vulgar... all about flared trousers, Starsky and Hutch, Chopper bikes and Showaddywaddy’.

Of course, there is a danger that thinking decennially presupposes that everything conveniently changes gear with the calendar, and there is something naive about Sounes’s claim that, far from being ‘trivial or foolish’, the Seventies were ‘a time of modern classics’. The Seventies undoubtedly did contain much triviality and foolishness; so did the more ideologically intense Thirties and Sixties. Culture, however defined, always contains its own contradictions: punk, for example, became fashionable at the same time as millions hailed the Queen’s Jubilee and Star Wars and Evita were the big hits.

But although Sounes’s thesis scarcely holds water, and I looked in vain for much of what I fondly remember as characterising the Seventies — Rising Damp, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Muppets, Cabaret, the Oz case, Watership Down, Biba, Cosmopolitan, the Sloane Rangers and the ballets of Kenneth MacMillan — he does locate some fascinating histories and phenomena along the way, etched in a clear, easy prose devoid of rock-journalist affectation. And even if he wasn’t there himself, he has done some solid research and interviewed those who were.

The figure who most broadly encapsulates Seventies’ sensibility is David Bowie — not so much because of his own large talent as because of the trends that criss-cross his performing style, both as influence and effluence. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Velvet Underground all contributed to his music. He invented the rock-concert spectacular, and explored the new technology of the synthesiser. He rejected both the droopy, shabby mumbling of the hippie and the solipsism of the acid freak, creating instead a flamboyant bisexual persona in which his ego swelled as he babbled about Nietzsche, supermen and space oddities. At one level, he led to the decadent glamour of Studio 54 disco; at another, he fed the baroque and eclectic originality of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, as well as the anarchistic cynicism of punk.

Sounes is good on Bowie, and perhaps should make the remarkable trajectory of Bowie’s career the subject of his next book. He’s sharp on the Stones, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell too, but doesn’t let himself get sucked deeper into rock — neither T Rex nor Talking Heads rate a mention, and even Pink Floyd only passes casually by. Instead Sounes examines other manifestations of popular culture: Monty Python, mainstream American cinema (from Five Easy Pieces to Annie Hall, via Jaws and Apocalypse Now), and strip-cartoons such as Peanuts and Doonesbury. His analysis isn’t particularly striking and he doesn’t draw everything into a Hegelian synthesis, but one reads happily on, amused by the personalities and the anecdotes.

Sounes is on less sure ground when he hits what used to be labelled high culture. Conceived in the late 1950s, the Sydney Opera House surely doesn’t belong here. David Hockney and Gilbert and George probably do, but can they really be said to dominate or lead the visual arts of the decade? Literature is represented by the wonderfully unlikely trio of Solzhenitsyn, Norman Mailer and Iris Murdoch, without so much as a mention of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. ‘Classical’ music doesn’t feature, nor do Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, or the upcoming Australian directors. The broader cultural context which underpinned the artistic innovation — the development of feminist, gay and ecological polemics, the impact of poststructuralism on the universities — is barely even sketched,

Sounes has no pretensions to being an academic and he’d probably retort that he wasn’t aiming to be encylopaedic or systematic, yet such omissions mean that he ultimately fails to make the best case for his donné. Although the book presents a bright and amusing parade which defeats the clichés and sniggers about platform heels and the Bay City Rollers, it wilts for lack of a stronger intellectual backbone.