Reliving the decade that never got a life

August 21, 1996|By Mike Littwin

HERE'S THE challenge. Can you discuss the '70s at any length -- let's say, the length of Cher's hair -- without resorting to cliches?

The answer is, obviously, no. It's a resounding no. It's an arena rock, snake around your neck, polyester on your back, wide-collared, big-Afroed, This Is Spinal Tap no. It's a we will, we will rock you NOOOOOO.

Of course you can't.

And even if you could, what would be the point?

If you can't do mood rings, est, disco, Ted Nugent on a buffalo, leisure suits and Captain and Tennille, you might as well just skip the whole thing.

And yet, VH1, the grown-up (sort of) video network, is making an effort to avoid the easy road in its week-long trip back to the decade that time tried to forget -- showing all '70s, all the time. They started Monday and won't stop till Sunday, no matter how loud the protests.

Yes, that means a little too much Sonny and Cher, and way too many Bradys, but also a five-part documentary that takes a serious, almost Ken Burnsian look at the '70s through the decade's music.

If you're like me, you have only one question at this point: Why?

The answer is easy. It's time. The underlying truth about nostalgia is you can be nostalgic for almost anything, which explains the KISS reunion tour now sweeping the land -- and sweeping it as we once thought only locusts could.

There's no quality control on nostalgia. We did the '60s, did 'em to a fare-thee-well (although you get one last chance to relive the '68 Democratic convention next week in Chicago, police batons optional). And so, now the '70s.

So, mood rings.

So, leisure suits, and don't deny you had one, because you did, probably two, and maybe platform shoes, too.

So, Andy Gibb. Boston. Abba. Tony Orlando. Journey. Vicki Lawrence. And on and on.

So, a decade that died of its own weight, or maybe of embarrassment. The last No. 1 song of the '70s was the Pina Colada song. What else do you have to know?

Well, I watched anyway, because VH1 sent me the five-part documentary (and also a big yellow happy face). I watched, expecting to laugh, and came away depressed instead.

If you watch it all the way through, you can't help but be depressed.

The '70s were, of course, born of the '60s. It was as if there were a great explosion and all that was left was the debris.

It's a parlor game -- figuring when decades begin and end -- because decades don't fit neatly into round numbers. The '60s weren't really done until (take your choice) McGovern lost, Nixon left or the war ended. The early '70s were a wrap-up of the '60s. The middle of the decade was a time of exhaustion and collapse. bTC And the end was a period of self-doubt and malaise that spawned Ronald Reagan.

What's depressing is what might have been.

In memory, the music of the early '70s was angry and militant. In fact, much of it was hopeful, and maybe naively so. This was a time when, although some cities were burning, there was still thought that civil rights meant an opportunity for real change.

And although there were loud anti-war demonstrations, John Lennon could sing "Imagine." Imagine a serious artist putting those words together today, without sounding like that "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coke commercial.

And women, as they were in the real world, were finding their place in rock music. Sometimes, they were even allowed to play guitar.

Maybe the most depressing episode airs tomorrow at 8 when "Right On!" examines, predictably, the '70s of R&B and soul music. And when the '70s begin, much of the music is heartbreakingly hopeful. Bands are interracial. Songs speak of integration. We're all every-day people. If hope wasn't in the air -- and I think it might have been -- it was definitely in the air waves.

And the music was terrific. Sly. And the Temps. And Marvin Gaye. And James Brown. Stevie Wonder. Aretha.

Something was happening. Actually, a lot of things were happening, and then it pretty much stopped, at least in the music.

Suddenly, the '70s were glam rock and they were more about music shows than about music. The music either got so loud to cover up that there was nothing to say or it got so busy -- with disco -- to distract us from the turmoil of the recent past.

It's easy to see why punk and hip hop had to happen. But it's harder to watch some of the clips, and not just the disco music.

In one clip, we see John Lennon saying, "Weren't the '70s a drag? Didn't we get through it?"

Watch that clip and just try to have a nice day.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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