You know books like this: An author has a pet theory well outside conventional wisdom that he puts forward to change how we look at some aspect of pop culture history. In the case of British music critic David Hepworth, it’s that 1971 was rock’s apex year.
It isn’t of huge consequence that this isn’t true. What matters is the aplomb and entertainment factor of the case being made.
Alas, it’s tough to endorse “Never a Dull Moment” on any level. Hepworth’s reveries for Rod Stewart and David Bowie read like rock jingoism; he massively overstates the import of a Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden; and he manages to conflate Don McLean’s “American Pie” with anything approaching vanguard rock-and-roll.
The core problem is that his enthusiasms get the better of him, and the book reads like a music fan’s Bildungsroman, rather than a critic’s enlightening reflections.
The occasional savvy pronouncement — for instance, that the live Leeds version of “Let It Rock” may have been the Rolling Stones’ best Chuck Berry cover — is undercut by first-person gushery. He remembers “nights that would climax with the sound of ‘Brown Sugar’ rasping and rattling from somebody’s lovingly assembled and nervously guarded component stereo, trainee teachers thrusting their hips in each other’s direction with unmistakably carnal intent, while studiously avoiding anything as telling as eye contact, cigarettes held aloft, each recapitulation of the chorus lasciviously lip-synched, temporarily transported to the Dionysian state of peak horn that the Stones achieved more often than anyone else, the rented room gravid with lust and throbbing with abandon.”
Settle down. . . . That’s writing for the author’s nostalgia, not for you, dear reader.
The book moves chronologically, each month of the year comprising a chapter. We jump from Marvin Gaye to Todd Rundgren, with little in the way of thematic development, more of a connect-the-dots by order of albums and single releases. There’s some value, but it’s spaced apart. Hepworth gives an idea of how tirelessly Rod Stewart worked throughout 1971, and it’s a clever point that Stewart gained a lot of his success by appealing to footballers and beer-guzzlers.
But then the death of Jim Morrison is contrasted with the death of Louis Armstrong — both taking place within a few days of each other — in an attempt to make the case that because the New York Times devoted less obit space to Morrison, there was prejudice against high-decibel rockers. Was there? Maybe with pockets of the bourgeois, but who cares? You end up asking yourself that a lot throughout “Never a Dull Moment.”
Here are five other years that could battle it out for the spot of best-ever rock campaign.
In which arena rock was smote upside the backside by the punk movement. The Sex Pistols and the Clash unleashed their galvanic LP debuts, while the Buzzcocks offered a brace of punk singles to match them. Television’s “Marquee Moon” was the gossamer masterpiece of the decade.
The Smiths shook up the possibilities of what a rock band could do with their debut; the Replacements reached their scuzzy best with “Let It Be”; Echo & The Bunnymen produced an all-timer in “Ocean Rain.” So many singular sounds: the Pogues with “Red Roses for Me”; Hüsker Dü with “Zen Arcade.”
The Strokes and the White Stripesdropped listeners on their heads with glorious post-garage bravado, and a movement followed. Bob Dylan checked in with “Love and Theft,” perhaps his last masterpiece. Radiohead offered the stellar “Amnesiac” and some of their finest shows.
This is the year in which all of the big early heavies had it going on: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, the Shirelles, the Everly Brothers, the Coasters.
The best year by such a gap that it’s staggering. The Beatles, Dylan and Beach Boys all released their finest LPs in their ongoing competition against one another. The Kinks, Byrds and Yardbirds weren’t far behind; the American garage movement boomed; and Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Velvet Underground were revving up. Unbeatable to date.
Colin Fleming is the author of “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss.”
By David Hepworth
Henry Holt. 320 pp. $30