1970, the Death of Flower Power & the Birth of Hard Rock

1970, the Death of Flower Power & the Birth of Hard Rock

The peak and the nadir of the hippie era are often epitomized by two festivals: Woodstock in August 1969, its self-proclaimed “3 Days of Peace & Music” emblematic of the communal spirit of the hippie ideal; and Altamont, four months later, when the stabbing death of an audience member during the Rolling Stones’ set proved that spirit illusory. Coupled with the Manson Family murders and the deaths of icons like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, it became depressingly clear that an era was ending.

In between, though, a third festival had already indicated a changing of the guard. At the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in September, John Lennon made a surprise appearance with a hastily assembled version of the Plastic Ono Band featuring Eric Clapton. The gig helped convince him to strike out on his own; he announced his departure from the Beatles a week later, putting an end to the decade’s defining band.

Earlier that day on the same stage in Toronto, a little-known, garishly sequined five-piece from Detroit, Alice Cooper, had made a memorable appearance. The band, whose second studio LP, Easy Action, was released in 1970, had long ended their sets by tearing apart pillows, cloaking the stage in a blizzard of feathers. At their Toronto set they went directly to the source, throwing a live chicken into the crowd with predictably grisly results. The namesake frontman, most certainly not a farmboy, has said he thought the chicken would fly. For decades afterwards, he would boast that he’d helped “drive a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.”

Alice Cooper mixed Motor City toughness with Sunset Strip glam, schlock-horror camp with the madcap villainy of predecessors like Arthur Brown, who famously sported a flaming headdress while proclaiming himself the “God of hellfire.” Seeds were planted for everything from the demonic clownishness of Kiss to the stylish tatters of punk.

Throughout 1970, Alice Cooper would be joined by a host of other bands releasing debuts or definitive albums that can be pinpointed as the birth of a heavier and darker phase of rock music, laying the groundwork for hard rock and heavy metal. With the dawn of a new decade came a turn from the lysergic fantasias of psychedelia to the lugubrious trudge of stoner rock, when peace-and-love utopianism curdled to hopelessness, Flower Power frolics darkened into black masses, and free-love idealism was bludgeoned into a crude, lecherous swagger.

Antecedents abound, of course. The Kinks had channeled the buzzing sound of a broken-down amp into the sneering come-on “You Really Got Me,” while Jimi Hendrix shaped feedback like a master sculptor. Blue Cheer jolted the blissed-out San Fran scene with their 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum, which conjured an alchemy of psychedelia, blues and primal rock on its urgent cover of “Summertime Blues.” Steppenwolf, who’d helped roar the name “heavy metal” into existence on “Born to Be Wild,” were on their fifth studio album by 1970.

Cream summoned massive force with minimal elements to forge a path for the power trio, though Eric Clapton’s rave-up blues background combined with the jazz-honed chops of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in a way that married might to intricacy. In Cream’s wake, the nuances were chiseled off to leave the unrefined thrust of Grand Funk Railroad, who released Closer to Home in ’70 — their third in less than a year, yielding the ubiquitous “I’m Your Captain.”

While Alice Cooper evoked the fake-cobweb thrills of a late-night horror host, Black Sabbath managed to make rock legitimately frightening. Their eponymous debut album, released in early 1970, was followed later that same year by the landmark Paranoid. Half a century later, the namesake song “Black Sabbath” remains a harrowing experience able to raise the hairs on the back of a listener’s neck. When Osbourne wails, “Please God help me,” one can almost feel the pull of demonic hands as the ground opens below. Later on that debut LP, he takes on the role of Great Seducer with the Luciferian groove of “N.I.B.”

Sabbath were hardly the first band to summon the Evil One in their music. The Stones had already expressed their “Sympathy for the Devil” and fulfilled Their Satanic Majesties Request. Trace the roots of either band back far enough and you end up at the crossroads with Robert Johnson. Both American blues and British folk music, two major strands that would intertwine in Sabbath’s sound, had a penchant for tales of the tragic and supernatural. Both strains also merged in the music of Led Zeppelin, who can make their own claims for hard-rock parentage.

This year saw the release of Led Zeppelin III, which found the band turning to a folksier, rootsier sound — though the album opened with “Immigrant Song,” forecasting thrash in its insistent, churning riff. A shockingly similar sound arose in Germany at the same time with Lucifer’s Friend, whose self-titled debut boasts wailing vocals over a guitar-organ frontline that could easily be mistaken for Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord. Album opener “Ride the Sky” bears an uncanny resemblance to “Immigrant Song,” released nearly simultaneously, with battle horns in place of Robert Plant’s screams.

Where Sabbath peered into the depths, many of their heavy English contemporaries gazed skyward. Both Hawkwind and UFO released debuts in 1970, and though science and sci-fi elements were present in both, the former would define space rock while the latter helped lay the groundwork for the new wave of British heavy metal.

Deep Purple lurched into 1970 with In Rock, their fourth album and first to feature the classic “Mark II” lineup. That iteration introduced Ian Gillan’s gut-rattling howl, and focused Blackmore’s guitar wizardry on the brain-pounding riffs that would reach their platonic ideal two years later with “Smoke on the Water.”

Thematically, Purple would provide a template for the strange bedfellows of raw, leering sexuality and bombastic prog excursions that would steadily inflate the music for the next two decades. Their countrymen Uriah Heep explored similar territory on their 1970 debut, Very ’Eavy, …Very ’Umble, which would soon narrow in focus to the funky hard-rock sound of their later catalog.

Similar influences oddly found their way to Brooklyn in the form of the criminally obscure Sir Lord Baltimore, whose 1970 debut, Kingdom Come, should be honored alongside its classic counterparts. A song like the harpsichord-laden “Lake Isle of Innersfree” suggests influential hours spent with Tolkien tomes, while the relentless title track is an unholy anthem on par with “Paranoid” or “Iron Man.”

Sir Lord Baltimore also combined the infernal with the salacious on songs like “Hell Hound,” a prime example of the juvenile sexual swagger that would become a tent pole of the genre, foregrounded in the hair-metal ’80s. While here that lustful machismo maintains a searing electricity along with a charming silliness, its crudest elements would cohere in the pelvic thrust of bands like the Guess Who, who graced 1970 with the posturing bluster of “American Woman.”

The streamlined sound of much of 1970-era heavy rock sounds rough-hewn when compared to the bloat and kitsch that would infect so much of the genre over the course of the decade. The cycle of over-the-top rock spawning the stripped-down counter-punch of punk would repeat at least a couple of times in the years to come.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel. He contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, and has written for NPR Music, the A.V. Club, DownBeat and Metro, among other outlets.

Image: Alice Cooper c. 1970. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.

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