Some thoughts on the 1970s

I was listening to a review on the Radio Two book club with Simon Mayo this week of a newly released book on the subject of the 1970s called State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook. The title itself is of course supposedly very descriptive of early part the decade in question but I have to say, the book title and some of the chat and consideration of that colourful era did not coincide with my own memories of the time. In fairness it was stated that for those who largely grew up in that decade the feelings would be quite different and probably more positive than the image of austerity that appeared to be presented by the book. It should also be stated that the four years covered by the book were perhaps isolated in certain ways from what followed.image

Some of the conversation revolved around the early part of the decade being something of a ‘black and white’ period with the clear inference that the rich, vibrant and colourful ‘swinging sixties’ was now being superseded by a much grimmer, sober and more grave age.

Oh no it wasn’t, not in my memory at least!

I was twelve years old when the new decade beckoned and just beginning senior school. It should be said that the industrial problems and resultant strikes and subsequent power cuts didn’t affect my wage packet as I was still on a few shillings (soon to be decimal pence) pocket money a week which was dutifully laid out for me by my dad on the mantelpiece every Friday evening. I do however remember the strikes and the three-day week that was declared to combat the regular power cuts. As a kid it was all great fun actually. There was much rummaging for age-old candles that had been stashed, unloved around the home for years. Meanwhile the clamour for new candles, paraffin lamps and other paraphernalia from hardware stores to deal with those hours of darkness were something of a new challenge for people. To people of an age with me it was all about making fire which was something us kids did for fun anyway. All something of a great adventure.

Not too long after I was embarked upon an apprenticeship in the print trade when there was still a small rash of further power cuts with a following industrial dispute. We couldn’t read the lead type in the gloom and of course the printing presses had ground to a halt in any case so it was time to down tools – not the biggest hardship in the world when you’re on your feet for a nine-hour shift. Those same work colleagues told me how they had coped quite admirably in the three-day week days by simply doing three twelve-hour day shifts. They were quite happy with this arrangement.

Others will have had more difficulties of course and there were certainly serious problems with some of the industrial disputes such as refuse bins not being collected for long periods as I recall. As always with these things it’s always the most vulnerable that suffer such as the old, infirm and sick and I certainly wouldn’t want to ride roughshod over the very real problems those people experienced.

Maybe it’s the age I was but these are not the things I chiefly remember about the 1970s. For me it was always a decade that entered as one construct and disappeared as quite another. Nowhere was this best illustrated than in the music scene which was incredibly varied and went through a huge revolution when punk rock reared its head in the middle of the decade. The year of 1970 was ushered in with hit 45’s such as Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, ­The Mixtures’ The Pushbike Song and The New Seekers’ I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – all mainstream pop songs to my twelve-year old ears. Sixties mini-skirts gave way to midi and maxi length skirts but this was delightfully punctuated (to most men’s eyes) by the advent of hot pants for women – a last hurrah for the look of the 1960s.


If you look closely at the above picture you can see a 1970s Raleigh bicycle



His ‘n Hers



Commuting was less of a problem in the 1970’s



‘I think I recognise that tartan, madam’



Gratuitous pic of  1970s Dukes of Hazzard star, Catherine Bach

I’d challenge anyone to label the way men dressed in the early part of the seventies as austere. It’s easy to say the fashions were ridiculous in hindsight (and many were!) but large staples of what we still wear were on the streets of the UK worn by the fashion-conscious. Levi and Wrangler jeans amongst others, Fred Perry shirts and some pretty colourful tie-die creations that are somehow echoed in some t-shirt designs of today.

It was an age of some fairly terrible cars such as the Austin Allegro but also some absolute classics, albeit many remaining from 1960s designs such as some of the pretty roadsters by MG and Triumph. Although most cars were not reliable the way they are these days one could never stake the claim that most cars all looked pretty much the same, as is a common complaint with modern cars.

1970s automotive cool: The Austin Allegro in regulation brown

My personal musical journey had progressed through the early seventies into listening to the likes of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma and Led Zeppelin’s first four immense vinyl offerings. I’d grown out of listening to early teenage heroes T.Rex. I bought a couple of albums that changed the way I thought about music forever, The Who’s Who’s Next and a collection of singles called Meaty, Beaty Big and Bouncy by the same band was never away from my record player deck. There were so many others though.

Eventually in around 1976 there was the perhaps inevitable backlash against the older ‘dinosaur’ bands when initially The Sex Pistols caused a huge stir by swearing on the TV, wearing safety pins and generally being considered fairly subversive. Popular music has become somewhat staid and at times self-satisfied and here was the backlash. The Clash, The Jam, The Damned and The Buzzcocks, and others too numerous to mention followed on quickly in what became a very creative ‘new wave’. Music would never be quite the same again and it is my humble opinion that popular music received a much-needed kick in the pants in that explosive period.

You can probably see that I remember the 1970s as an exciting time, not some ‘austere’ period dominated by Ted Heath’s Government, industrial action and the three-day week. The 1960s (and to some extent the 1950s) took some matching for sheer colour and innovation but the decade that followed was in its own way a magical time for many of us.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the 1970s”

  1. Arf! Great photos Stu! My brother’s first bike was exactly like the one modelled by that bird in the hot pants (you can say ‘bird’ here, it’s the 1970s, right?) – a Raleigh, probably the very same.

    Did you know Austin Morris turned down the opportunity in the late 60s to employ the same designer resposible for the Citroen DS? And so Britain got the Allegro, the Maxi, the Princess…

    You’re right from a style point of view the 70s were anything but austere. Everything was purple, orange or bottle green, usually mixed together. Economically though it was the decade of cheap tat, plastic crap, strikes, power cuts and hyper-inflation. And the aforementioned Allegro.

    When I see some of the old footage of outraged citzens of Cwmbran forcing the council to ban the Sex Pistols I sense how it was actually the cusp between the world of The Blitz, rationing, community spirit, end of Empire, the last moments of a dying generation before the world of Thatcher, greed, the individual, me me me, Loadsamoney, Wham!, computers, the internet, collateralised debt instruments, the Global Financial Crisis – The Modern World that Weller sang about. The 70s aren’t often thought of as watershed years, but to me they were, and not just because they coincide with years of growing from childhood to adulthood.

    The 70s were great in so many ways, but I could never understand how future generations could re-embrace flared trousers.

  2. I remember that bike very well. It was pre-Chopper and might have been called an RSW (Raleigh Small Wheels)? Another name that comes to mind is the Raleigh 20. In any case I think it may have been the first bike with smaller wheels.

    I didn’t know that about Austin Morris but it doesn’t surprise me. I think they wrote the book on making classic mistakes! Some truly awful cars.

    I think, like the original author mentioned, that a lot depended on how old you were in that decade. Probably for those of us growing up at that time it was a colourful and adventurous time as were weren’t necessarily feeling the brunt of the economic problems. I actually remember enjoying the power cuts!

    I like your theory about the seventies being a cusp. The more I think about that the more it makes sense in retrospect. Your Sex Pistols reference reminds me of when Never Mind the B*****ks was released and appeared on display in the Virgin store window in Nottingham. A policewoman entered the premises and arrested the store manager and the resultant court proceedings became something of a test case! Such an incident seems a mere curio when related now but when you stop and consider if that could happen now it makes you understand how far we have travelled since those years.

  3. Here we go – a short ‘un.
    The only time the seventies were ‘black and white’ was between 1978-9.
    I was born in 1954, and the sixties didn’t end when the last two numbers ’69’ became ’70’. In some parts of England (even in London), towards the mid seventies, it still could have been 1966, with the Green Line Routemasters around where I grew up in West Croydon, lasses dressed like it was 1940 and not a dark face to be found…it was only German electronic bands like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and the Brit. bands that had picked up on it that showed us we’d ‘moved on’ – of course nasty little men like myself spoilt it all by rushing off to Brixton at a weekend, and coming back with ska, reggae and mod tunes.
    It sure as damn wasn’t ‘black and white’ (I started work as BR guard – and could have moved on at any time) – as I type, as soon as Labour got too big for its boots – towards the last years of the decade, we all felt like trash – and (as most Lib-dem feel now in November 2010) sold out.

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