To get a reminder of how strange the 1970s were, there’s no need to plough through lengthy social and political histories. Go instead to YouTube, and watch the public-information films made for schoolchildren. Take Lonely Water (1973), in which Donald Pleasence provides the voice of death, stalking careless children and dragging them to a watery grave. There’s Apaches (1977), in which kids playing on a farm suffer various recondite forms of agricultural death (falling under the wheels of a moving tractor, drowning in slurry). Or try my personal nightmare, The Finishing Line (1977); a school sports day, played out on a railway line, which ends with the traditional sprint through a tunnel pursued by a train and the bodies of dozens of dead children laid out on the track. It wasn’t all Spangles and Space hoppers, whatever stand-up comedians might have you believe.
This autumn, two enormous new rock box sets — so heavy you could devise a workout routine around them — take on the 1970s, and offer differing views of that decade but linked perhaps by those public-information films. Black Sabbath’s The Ten Year War compiles all the albums the group made with Ozzy Osbourne as their singer during their first iteration, and is the sound of the adult narrators of those clips: You are all going to die, horribly! Bowie, in retrospect, on A New Career in a New Town 1977–1982, sounds more like the kids: positively fancy-free, having come through his own paranoid phase immediately prior to this period. Before decamping to Europe in 1976, he had been holed up in Los Angeles, subsisting on milk, peppers and cocaine, and keeping his urine in a fridge for fear a witch would use it to cast a spell on him (why he didn’t realise that flushing it down the loo might be a better way to protect it from supernatural interference is another question).
At the time, though, you wouldn’t have bet money on Sabbath being as worthy of memorialising as Bowie.