“You take the risk of being rejected. If you have pretensions to be an artist of any kind, you have to take the risk of people rejecting you and thinking you’re an arsehole.” – Roger Waters
After the artistic (and influence) success of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the stupendous artistic and commercial success of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the appetite of record buying audiences for “full length works” was well whetted. Musical artists of the next decade or so found themselves faced, however, with a choice. Did they, as many bands did, follow the “concept” approach introduced to rock audiences by Brian Wilson? Was there another path?
Under normal circumstances that “other path” might have been to follow the example of Bob Dylan, choosing to record albums of original songs without any overt conceptual framework. Certainly Dylan was pointing out that “other way” with his albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan had retreated from the world after his motorcycle accident in mid 1966, but his work still cast a long shadow. Emerging from that shadow would be a group of artists whose work followed the Dylan model and who enjoyed as great, at times greater, commercial success than the bands following the Beach Boys/Beatles concept album model: singer/songwriters.
One of the noteworthy results of the success of singer/songwriter albums was the rise of women performers. In band-based rock there were a few female stars (Janis Joplin are Grace Slick are perhaps the best known examples), but the singer/songwriter movement provided voice for the sort of personal, intimate music that reflected its origin in folk music – too, the confessional school of poetry likely had some effect on the genre.
The work of Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell resonated with women record buyers who found themselves struggling with many of the same issues that these artists wrote and sang about. Indeed, their songs about the changing relationship dynamics between men and women spoke powerfully to both genders – Simon’s “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” King’s “It’s Too Late,” and Mitchell in “Help Me” explore, from a woman’s viewpoint, the relationship expectations of a previous generation and the subtle, insidious imposition of those expectations on the next generation (Simon), the struggle on both sides of a relationship to admit its failure (King), and the uncertainty and angst of beginning a new relationship (Mitchell).
There were male singer/songwriters, too, some joined together in bands (Crosby, Stills, and Nash), most, like their female counterparts, worked alone. The most notable of these, James Taylor, explored, from a male perspective, the complicated, changing relationship dynamics of their generation.
At the same time bands were still exploring the concept album genre. Two albums, both of which enjoyed immediate and long lived commercial and artistic triumph, best represent perhaps the continuing success of the the album as the preferred musical form.
The Eagles’ Hotel California captured the zeitgeist of the 1970’s. It is, in its own way, a sort of “mirror cracked” version of Little Deuce Coupe, the Brian Wilson written Beach Boys’ concept album about California (really American in its obsession with cars) teen culture. Hotel California gives the listener those Californian (really, American) teens grown up and grown angst ridden from navigating difficult relationships, dealing with the effects of drug culture, and enduring the other social-cultural changes wrought by the sixties.
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a different work altogether. While, like Hotel California, it carries a healthy dose of angst, Dark Side of the Moon is much more expansive work that explores the existential dilemma. It’s a sort of philosophical tone-poem – song titles such as “Breathe,” “Time,” and “Money” explore the pressures of modern life. It’s an expansive, rich examination of the modern human condition.
Both these albums sold vast numbers, as did the relationship pondering of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, and James Taylor.
The album was king.