Sucking in the Seventies

I was born in late January of 1971, so that makes me just a few months shy of forty-two at this point in time. I don’t feel it most days…in fact, for the most part the reminder of my age is when I think about music releases–remembering when certain songs and albums came out and were huge hits, stuff like that–and only then will I belatedly think “Oh yeah…I’m that old. Huh.” Not that it bothers me. It comes as an afterthought.

As I’d mentioned before, one of the benefits of being this age is being able to see music genres and styles come full circle, or at least warp and mutate and eventually return in some form to the original. Synthpop bands are the big thing lately, bands who might not be giving a gracious nod to the original Krautrock bands of the seventies and early eighties like D.A.F. or Kraftwerk, but are at least embracing the sound’s second generation by giving that nod to Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, A Flock of Seagulls, Depeche Mode, and so on. Bands like Bear in Heaven, Cut Copy, M83 and so on have brought back that reverb-drenched Korg synth sound, and they’re getting some serious airplay on indie and satellite stations. They call it ‘indietronica’ now, but it’s the same as synthpop–catchy tunes backed by music that sounds futuristic, dated, sterile and exciting, all at the same time. It’s like the 80s all over again.

But what about the seventies? Sure, as a lot of critics and bloggers would like to say, the seventies were one big hellhole of bad fashion, nasty politics, and craptacular music. It was the hangover decade following the partying 60s, the time of old excesses finally coming back to bite us on the ass. And yet…the seventies did have its own saving graces. It had the punk/no-wave/post-punk/art-punk scenes of the UK, New York and elsewhere. FM became the mainstream bandwidth to listen to, and freeform was in its heyday. It had Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith. And, if you’re into that kind of genre, it had some pretty damn fine prog rock like early Genesis, Rush, and ELP. And as much as we hate it and like to deride it, there was disco. It never really went away, really. We still have Scissor Sisters, Hot Chip, and countless teen pop singers. The infectious beats are still there, just under different names and better production quality.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this misbegotten decade is the prevalence of pictures run through the Instagram app.

borrowed by @vikstagram at

This here’s a good example: a picture of downtown San Francisco at the end of a sunny day. It was taken in January of this year, but with the magic of an iPhone and the Instagram app, it suddenly looks like it was taken with a Polaroid camera sometime in 1977. There’s a slight discoloration you’re not quite sure of (maybe a little sienna from sunfade?), maybe a bit of surface scratch, maybe a bit of graininess, and definitely a lot of color oversaturation. It looks like a picture found in your family photo album that you’d forgotten about. It’s the latest app that everyone loves and uses heavily if they have iProducts. [The rest of us need to use Photoshop, but I’m not complaining.]

Having been a small kid in the 70s, this kind of imagery triggers a lot of visual memories. It brings me back to when my age was in the single digits and the boundaries of my life went as far as my cousins’ house on Paige Street a block and a half away, and the long walk downtown with my Mom (one full mile!) was an exciting afternoon trip. Of when a layer of winter’s snow seemed amazingly deep, and sliding the hills in our backyard was the best thing ever. My dad saved quite a few of these old pictures from my youth, of my older sisters and I playing in the back yard or on a vaction trip to Maine or elsewhere. Perhaps this is the allure of Instagram…those of us in our thirties and forties remember our youth as grainy and color-saturated. We remember our youth as one of those 16mm films we’d watch during recess if the weather was horrible outside.

As is typical with me, this imagery also triggers a lot of aural memories as well. When I see these Instagram pictures of autumn scenes, I think of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and listening to Arrival on the family stereo in the autumn of 1976. I see pictures of rainy days and I think of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” and listening to Out of the Blue in the spring of 1978. Pictures of cities at night and I think of The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and the gang troubles in Boston in the 70s. Pictures of parks and I think of the kids’ show Jabberwocky out of Boston and its trippy theme song. Every single memory has some slight gauze, as if our young brains had some kind of lower pixel rate and couldn’t save the images any clearer than that.

These are all songs I grew up with, images that I remember from my youth. Despite all the twitch-inducing memories everyone likes to dredge up of bad fashion and excess, a lot of the mundane things in the 70s aren’t very different from what they are today. The seasons come and go, showing us their colors both bright and dark. Fashion is still questionable here and there. Politics still unites and divides. Disco is still here, just under a different name. Rock and roll is still rock and roll. We see the present without the Instagram filters, but we always see the past in that dated, grainy way. It’s even inspired the sounds of these indie bands like Chairlift, Air, Boards of Canada, and more.

Now that I’m slowly approaching forty-two, I’ve decided that perhaps it’s time for me to pull those memory filters aside. I like looking at these faux-aged pictures as art, but I find myself more impressed by the startling clarity and framework of professional photography. If I’m going to revisit the past–my own past, the sound of classic rock and AOR, the history of the country, what have you–I want to revisit it clearly, with as little outside influence or gloss as possible. That way I can understand it better, maybe even visualize the parallels, differences and similarities between the past and the present. I’ll still enjoy these Instagram pictures and listen to these retro-influenced bands, of course…there’s no harm in them if you can tell the difference between then and now.

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