A one-year wonder

As a punk rocker, Jon Savage sneered at hippie music. So why has he made a compilation of overlooked gems from 1970?
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The Independent Culture

The idea for the compilation came to me after an evening's free association with four of my peers, retracing the music that we actually liked as real-time mid-teenagers in the early Seventies. We'd all been through punk, when the only old music you were allowed to like was The Stooges, the Velvet Underground, MC5 and The New York Dolls. We'd had to totally deny what we'd liked only four or five years earlier, a necessary posture for the Year Zero of 1976, but not one to retain 25 years later. "Never Trust A Hippie"? Well, many punks - including the movement's most charismatic figurehead, Johnny Rotten - had been hippies before they cut their hair.

This disparity between rhetoric and reality, together with the sheer enjoyment of hearing some long-forgotten records, formed the basis of Meridian 1970. My idea was to uncover and celebrate a particularly misunderstood musical moment. Contrary to received opinion, the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s was not a musical wasteland: with so many releases , there were many gems among the dross.

A few people were still making tough rock records at a time when - after the unprecedented success of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" in 1970 - the music industry was mass-producing singer-songwriters. Although it seemed then that you were not allowed to rock, their records did so, while delivering some kind of socio-political protest. 1970 was the year, after all, of Crosby Stills Nash and Young's "Ohio", an impassioned outcry at the shooting of students at Kent State University.

In the later blanket dismissal of hippie ideals, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. You might find the late-period-Beatle blues of Steve Miller's "Industrial Military Complex Hex" old-fashioned, but the sentiment, lifted straight from President Eisenhower's famous final address, still rings true today. "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex," Eisenhower had warned.

Even within the soon-to-be-over-marketed genre of the singer/songwriter, there was enormous variation. For every introspective bromide or faux-country lament, there were a dozen oddities, life-stories, or songs of dread. Heard this way, an acoustic guitar did not signal lamentable self- absorption but a direct experiential connection to the American beat/hobo tradition. About this time, the Great White WonderDylan bootlegs brought some of his earliest, and most haunting folk songs into the public domain.

A concentration on the underdog, the true folk, can be heard in Rod Stewart's spare version of "Man of Constant Sorrow", Loudon Wainwright III's stinging "Black Uncle Remus", and Skip Spence's visionary "Cripple Creek". Never let it be said that acoustic guitars cannot deliver raw power. One listen to Leo Kottke's "Hear the Wind Howl", with its hell-hound-on-my-trail invocation of weather as a psychological state, will dispel that idea. At the same time, British performers offered their own, Celtic modal versions of Americana, represented here by Donovan's crystalline redaction of WB Yeats's poem "Song of the Wandering Aengus" and Meic Stevens, whose driving "One Night Wonder" shows why he is sometimes called "the Welsh Bob Dylan".

There was a point to this earthy, simpler impulse. If you look at any large event from the period, like the film of Woodstock or the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, you can see that rock had grown mannered, self-indulgent and plain boring. The wild outreach of 1967 had passed, and pioneers like The Doors, The Who and Jimi Hendrix were struggling to come to terms with the gigantism of their new performing environment. The direct, intimate yet still intense approach of the acoustic tribe offered an alternative. At the same time, it captured the more reflective mood of psychedelic pioneers like the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, whose version of the parable "Good Shepherd" remains a textbook example of how to mix acoustic guitars with mind-melting psychedelia.

1970 represented a moment of reckoning. Many songs that year, like Dave Mason's "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave", expressed the realisation that you couldn't go straight out into the stratosphere for ever, that there were, in the stock phrase of the time, dues to pay. This regret also lay behind the period's other strong drive, away from urbanism to celebrations of country living, like The Move's last great psychedelic blast, "Message From the Country", or Free's delicate, ruminative instrumental, "Mouthful of Grass", which surprised many of the pop fans who flipped "All Right Now". The best songs, like The James Gang's mid-Western symphony "Ashes, the Rain and I", invoked a sense of space and natural drama that was a beacon to teens stuck in claustrophobic Britain.

The early 1970s is, in many ways, a great lost rock era. It captured the moment when the positive influence of 1967 reached its peak, despite the fact that it was a period of wasteful overproduction, just before the first great petrochemical scare of 1972-3. But it included the coke, suede and waterbeds that helped to make the style so nauseating to the next generation. Many early punks were adolescents met with snotty and superior elders who sneered at their lack of cool. By 1975, their rage was threatening to boil over.

But punk quickly became tedious. In today's looped pop time, past styles are routinely taken up by contemporary musicians and actual adolescents. The hierarchical notion of cool that the 1960s and 1970s generations grew up with has been replaced by a more open-minded, pragmatic aesthetic: if it works, use it. By editing indifferent albums down to their best cut, in finding unfamiliar songs by well-known artists and uncovering a few well-kept secrets, I tried to compile a CD that sounds good in the 21st century.

'Meridian 1970' is released on Monday on Forever Heavenly/EMI