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The Seventies


By Alex Brown




There was no real cultural dividing line between the events of the late Sixties and those of the early 1970s. The same political and social forces were at work and provoked the same kind of responses in terms of street action, politics, music and other cultural activities. As the decade wore on, it became noticeable that a new conservative backlash began to emerge against the radical political and moral attitudes which had dominated the previous decade.


In the Sixties it had been the students and intellectuals who had held centre stage on the news media by challenging the war, outdated social conventions and conventional politics. IN THE SEVENTIES, however, the key issues became those which were important to the middle and working classes such as UNEMPLOYMENT AND CRIME IN THE CITIES. The political character of the 1970s in the USA and the West in general can be summed up in the following way:


1.        CIVIL RIGHTS: Politically, in the United States the Sixties had seen a massive extension  of  civil Rights and liberal             political policies under President Kennedy and  President  Johnson.

2.        THE CONSERVATIVE BACKLASH: The social upheavals of the Sixties in the USA and Europe plus the continuing             war in Vietnam inevitably brought a demand from the  majority  of  the population for a more controlled and                           conservative climate.

3.        POLITICS: The conservative Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States.

4.       THE VIETNAM WAR: In the USA it was the sons of the conservative working classes who were being killed in                      Vietnam with still no victory in sight. Nixon, in part, was elected  on a  promise to end this most unpopular of wars.

5.      ECONOMIC CRISES: After the post‑war economic boom, Western countries began to suffer major economic                       problems which lead to a dramatic increase in unemployment.


These issues provide a background to the growing pessimism and disappointment which characterises the 1970s. The economic boom of the Sixties, its optimism and the possibility of creating a new and better world had finally disappeared. This sudden change of atmosphere was also reflected in the cultural world of films, music and theatre: the utopian (ideal) and romantic dreams of the Sixties gave way to the sober realism of the Seventies. It is necessary to look at some of these events in detail:




The Vietnam war remained the central political issue of the first three years of the decade:


1.        President Nixon uses extreme military measures get America out with some degree of  credibility and an acceptable political settlement. This includes massive bombing of North Vietnam and Laos and the bombing and invasion of Cambodia.


​2..      Anti‑war reaction at home becomes more extreme as the fighting spread into the  adjacent  countries of Cambodia and Laos. (Four students are shot dead in an anti‑war demonstration. Hundreds of colleges are closed down after student riots).


3.        Nixon reduces the numbers of American troops in troops in Vietnam and meets the North Vetnamese at the conference table. Although fighting continues both sides  recognise that  the war is over and the US will withdraw.


4.      In 1973 the last American troops leave Vietnam. In 1975 North Vietnamese troops take  over the whole country.


The Vietnam War‑ focus of a decade of protest ‑ is finally over. 58,000 American servicemen had been killed during the war. Two million Vietnamese people had been killed and the country devastated.




One year after pulling America out of Vietnam, President Nixon is forced to resign in disgrace as President of the United States. He had been found guilty of using illegal means to spy on and harass his political opponents.




Almost by surprise the booming Western economies of the 1950s & 1960s suddenly faced economic crises in the Seventies. The reasons for this and for the dramatic rise in unemployment can be outlined as follows:


1.    Loss of world markets to Japan: By the 1970s Japan's industry had developed from a producer of cheap copies of Western products to being a world leader in high quality, well-priced consumer goods. The West now faced industrial competition for the first time and the basic problems of its industries began to show up.


2.     Management‑union conflicts: Continuing strikes and labour disputes throughout the Sixties and Seventies pointed to a fundamental and long­ running conflict between management and labour in Western industries. This disrupted production and gave Western industries a reputation for unreliability. Japanese management techniques plus the Asian tendency towards consensus rather than conflict prevented these problems from arising in Japan.


3.     Low investment in machinery & equipment: Apart from Germany, Western nations had not re‑invested in the machinery and tools needed for efficient production. Much of their plant was out of date compared to Japanese and German standards. Profits from industry had not been used to keep industries competitive.


4.    A 500% increase in the price of oil by the oil‑producing countries in 1973. The Arab oil‑producing countries halted oil supplies to those countries which had supported Israel in the Arab‑Israeli War of 1973. They also raised the price of oil generally. Since many Western industries were based on cheap oil energy, this caused a major industrial‑economic crisis sending many Western countries into recession and leading to an increase in unemployment for the first time since the 1930s.


With rising unemployment, the focus of debate in the West changed from social policy, civil rights and the creation of a new ideal society to one of basic economic policy which would create jobs and get people back to work.


The introduction and general availability of the contraceptive pill and the entrance of many more women into higher education in the Sixties and Seventies produced a definite change in the intellectual and social climate of the period. Part of this was the continuing development of the FEMINIST MOVEMENT. This analysed the character of Western society in terms of oppression of women (and minorities) as an effect of male political and psychological aggression.




The Seventies are not considered to be the most radical or creative decade of the Modern period. If one word sums up the feeling of the decade it is probably 'exhaustion'. The explosive energies of the Sixties, when almost every social convention or fashion was call into question and which produced a revolutionary musical environment had simply burned itself out.


In the Seventies the new styles in art, music and fashion which had caused shock in the Sixties became generally acceptable and commercially marketed. In this sense the Seventies did not really have its own unique style but merely exploited and commercialised the styles of the previous decade. We can outline the cultural character of the Seventies under the following headings:


5.1    Post‑Sixties Fashion


The fashions which had arisen in the Sixties amongst the students and popularised by the rock groups of the period became 'standard dress' in the Seventies.




The early Sixties had still meant suits and ties. By the early Seventies this had become unfashionable and two trends had emerged: the super casual tee‑shirt and jeans (from the student radicals) OR wildly flared trousers and colourful shirts (from the Hippies and Black culture).


The Afro hairstyle of the Black radicals of the Sixties became fashionable amongst Caucasians of both sexes in the Seventies. So too did the long hair of the Hippies.




The Sixties miniskirt remained fashionable but a more important development (influenced by the Feminist Movement) was ‑(surprise, surprise) ‑ tee shirt and jeans. By this time many women no longer felt the need to portray themselves as 'pretty dolls' but as equally effective members of society.




Later in the decade however, these styles were overtaken by the much TOUGHER leather and chains style of the  New York band, The Ramones and the British PUNKS.


This was the only original fashion and musical style to emerge out of the Seventies and started in the UK as a reaction to the increasingly soft and 'glamorous' look of Rock fashion (and some of the music too). It also suited a decade where unemployment, poverty and disappointment had become general conditions amongst youth in the UK and the USA.


The torn jeans, dog collars, leather jackets and chains of the Punks and their spiky, 'mohawk' or short and coloured hairstyles were meant to provoke rage and shock amongst those who still believed in work & progress in the face of a deteriorating economic and social situation of empty factories, rusting machinery and unemployment queues.


This TOUGH, STREET‑SMART LOOK was particularly popular with an increasingly powerful and articulate group of feminist‑inclined women and was a style which finally allowed women to discard their pretty, soft and mindless 'dolly­bird' image. However, by the late Seventies any general dress code had disappeared and 'pick‑and‑mix' became the standard approach at street level.


5.2  Music


The music of plate Sixties ‑ filled with social comment and dreams of a 'new age' dissolved into disillusionment and the drug‑induced deaths of rock stars Jimmy Hendrix & Janis Joplin, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones), Rock no longer had a meaning beyond that of mere entertainment. Apart from the brief Punk period, the Rock 'MUSIC INDUSTRY' saw its primary purpose as making money not social or political comment. Music began to split into several different markets and also saw the rise of individual superstars such as Rod Stewart, Elton John & David Bowie and 'supergroups' such as Police, Kiss & ABBA. Some of the styles are outlined below with examples:


Soft Rock:    Pop or Glam Rock): 'Easy listening' and appealing to all  generations. Especially the new teeny‑loop (12‑14 year old market). Groups: AREA, the  Osmonds, the Jackson Five, Bay City Rollers, Diana Ross, David Essex, etc. 

Heavy Rock: (Precedes Heavy Metal): Very loud, heavy, high profile lead guitar, very strong  bass drum outfit, Rhythm & Blues‑based music. Group: the one and only LED ZEPPLIN.


Punk:        Violent musical reaction to glam /soft /sentimental styles in music/ politics and  lifestyles. The sound is violent thrashing and almost tuneless plus driving energy.  More than just a musical revolt ‑ one of lifestyle. Groups: The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, The New York Dolls.


New Wave:   American Punk:‑cool & cynical: Groups: Blondie, Boomtown Rats.


Soul:           A very much smoothed out, slower & softer version of Black Rhythm & Blues. Performers: Stevie Wonder, the Stylistics. Synthesizers plus Pop beat ‑ essentially background music for discotheques. Same dance‑beat for entirely different songs.  Performer: Donna Summer and others.

Disco:      By the end of the decade the scene had been set for synthesised Techno‑ pop  and increasingly theatrical Heavy Metal groups.

5.3    Modern  Art


Like the acceptance of radical social conventions and the new music of the Sixties, the Seventies saw the public acceptance of Modern Art (E.g. Abstract and Pop Art) to the point where any new and 'controversial' work of art had some significance no matter how trivial or 'SHOCKING' it was. It became clear that Art (like music) could not change society and that it was a commodity like any other product. The 'ART MARKET' (like the Music Industry) became subject to massive commercial pressures. Two art movements however did appear in the Seventies: Conceptual Art and Minimalism. In both cases the artist attempts to eliminate 'High Art' and give direct experience of a simple and familiar object. Yet even these 'anti‑art' experiments became absorbed by commercialism. That is, by MONEY AND ART AS AN INVESTMENT.


5.4    Post Modern Design


The Seventies saw a final rejection of the serious and idealistic views of design put forward in the Sixties. In the Sixties, design was seen to have a social purpose and the accepted design style for that purpose was MODERN DESIGN created in the 1920s as the so‑called Modern Movement. This style saw design in terms of rational analysis of problems and the solution usually turned out to be a simple, geometric and smooth form. References to previous familiar, popular or historical styles were 'forbidden' in the name of a clear visual ORDER.


The Seventies rejected this approach of the Modern Movement as boring, inhumane and LACKING IN JOY and produced the Post‑Modern Design Movement which (like the 'pick‑and‑mix' street fashion styles) allowed the use of any and all possible forms in the solution of design problems. This could include previous historical styles and usually involved some SENSE OF HUMOUR in the design of objects or shocking colour schemes.


5.5  Technology


Four more moon landings by the Americans saw the end of the lunar landing programme in favour of a more commercial rather than scientific or political use of Space Technology. The Space Shuttle was designed at this time to put commercial satellites into orbit. As in all other areas of Seventies society, economics, money and commercial interest dominated the development of the Space Programme.








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