According to David Hepworth, the year he turned 21 was also the year when ‘a huge proportion of the most memorable albums ever made were released’. Having been a rock journalist for four decades, he does of course know the theory that everybody thinks music was at its best when they were young. But, as he puts it with untypical — if presumably ironic — machismo, the ‘important difference in the case of me and 1971’ is that ‘I’m right’.
The strange thing is that he might well be. If the Mercury Prize had existed in 1971, Hunky Dory, Led Zeppelin IV, Imagine, Every Picture tells a Story, Who’s Next and Sticky Fingers would have been up against at least half a dozen others that, 45 years on, rock fans of any age are likely to know better than most of the recent winners.
And that’s just the albums from Britain. The same year also produced Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Neil Young’s Harvest and the record that, by Hepworth’s reckoning, ‘invented the album business’. Made in just five three-hour sessions in January 1971, Carole King’s Tapestry was released with very little fanfare. Yet, 25 million sales later, the recent news that the 74-year-old King will perform it this summer in Hyde Park was greeted with levels of grateful excitement the returning Christ might settle for.
On the whole, this is a state of affairs we now take so much for granted (Carole King? Tapestry? Who wouldn’t be excited?) that it’s easy to forget how unimaginable it would once have been — not least in 1971. Fortunately, one of the many strengths of Hepworth’s book is that it combines both perspectives: emphasising how much a part of 21st-century life these albums remain, while also reminding us that, back when they were made, what most people took for granted was pop’s lack of a shelf life.