Irish Times Saturday 6th August
MUSIC : Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 By David Browne Da Capo Press, 369pp. £16.99
THE YEAR 1970 was pretty important in this writer’s life. It was the year when, aged 11, I realised that pop music was not just something that crackled out of the kitchen wireless or wafted over the breeze on sunny afternoons at Seapoint strand. It was something to dive headlong into, a phantasmagorical world filled with three-minute wonders, and peopled with exotic, long-haired creatures whose siren-call was a throaty yell or a screaming electric guitar solo.
1970 was my pop music year zero, the year I started grabbing onto the sounds that were coming my way, turning them over and examining them with a fresh ear. It was the year I discovered that music was real.
In the wider music world, however, 1970 didn’t seem, on the face of it, a seminal year. It felt more like an empty pause between the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and the glammy nihilism of the coming decade. Look closely at the events of that year, though, and you might discern a pattern. For David Browne, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, 1970 was a gateway year, when the niave idealism of the 1960s had the door shut firmly in its face, and a new door opened onto a darker, more pragmatic era. At Kent State University in Ohio, the US army opened fire on students protesting at the escalation of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, four were killed. The media were gripped by the trial of Charles Manson following the Tate/La Bianca murders the previous year. It was a tumultuous year of endings and beginnings, of final collapses and fresh starts.
For the four artists at the centre of this book, 1970 was a particularly momentous year. Simon Garfunkel had the biggest-selling album of their career i n Bridge Over Troubled Water, but the duo were unable to bridge the growing chasm between them. Crosby, Stills, Nash Young’s astonishing harmonies, showcased on their Déjà vu album, garnered them massive success, but failed to disguise the disharmony between these four very different, strong-willed individuals. And it was the year the Beatles broke up. By the release of their final album, Let It Be, the Lennon/McCartney rift had grown so wide the two former best mates were communicating only through press releases, terse notes or pointed lyrics.
Meanwhile, James Taylor, a little-known troubadour from North Carolina, had delivered a new album filled with gently- plucked songs that sounded an unusually soothing note in these fiery times. Sweet Baby James was a low-key throwback to the folkie idyll of just a few years ago, but such songs as Fire And Rain featured self-examining lyrics that reflected darker thoughts beneath the calmness. The album grew into a cult, and started Taylor on the road to superstardom.
So here, for what it’s worth, is a year in the lives of four of rock’s most influential figures – Browne tells us much we didn’t know about each artist, but also gives a decent historical account of that year’s events, from the Apollo 13 crisis to the Kent State shootings to the bomb-making activism of The Weathermen to Nixon’s bid for re-election.
Through numerous interviews and painstaking research, Browne has built up a forensic picture of these 12 months, and allows us to become flies on the wall at recording sessions, band meetings, public appearances and backstage at concerts.
The book chronicles the disintegration of the long-standing friendship between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, schoolfriends from Queens, New York, who began their career in 1956 singing Everly Brothers-inspired rock as the duo Tom and Jerry. Crosby, Stills and Nash were a note-perfect triumvirate, and seemed inseparable as buddies, but when they brought Neil Young into the fold, old tensions between Young and Stills, former bandmates in Buffalo Springfield, came to the surface, by the time Déjà vu was released and a tour booked, the bickering within the band had reached boiling point.
But these petty squabbles were dwarfed by the disintegration of the Fab Four, and 1970 was the year it all went pear-shaped in Apple Corp.
McCartney, unhappy with the band’s decision to hire Allen Klein as their new manager, employed his own management team and planned to release his debut solo album around the same time as Let It Be – much to the chagrin of the other three. Klein hired Phil Spector to add lush orchestration onto the songs from Let It Be – when McCartney heard the choirs and strings tacked onto The Long And Winding Road, which he’d intended to be a sparse ballad, he was enraged.
Meanwhile, following his bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton with Yoko Ono, John Lennon continued to set out his own socially conscious stall with various publicity stunts, one of which involved the couple getting severe army-style haircuts and selling the shorn hair for charity.
The trial of Charles Manson brought negative publicity when the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, told the court that cult leader Charles Manson was obsessed with the Beatles’ White Album, and “believed they were speaking to him across the ocean through the lyrics of their songs”.
There are points at which the four artists’ stories intersect, albeit only fleetingly. James Taylor was signed to Apple Corps for his first album, for Sweet Baby James, he shared a label with Neil Young, his closest contemporary in the singer-songwriter genre. And Paul Simon was a bit peeved that The Beatles’ new single, Let It Be, sounded so similar to Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Do we need such an in-depth study into what is just one year in the 50-plus years of rock? Probably not, but since I spent most of 1970 with my head buried in the wireless and my face pressed up to Top of the Pops, It’s interesting to view that year though some of my heroes’ eyes.
Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist