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1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is streaming on Apple TV+.

Keith Richards, featured in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything

“You’re so nostalgic, and you are always talking about the past,” Yoko Ono ruefully says of the British tendency towards rose-tinted reminiscing, in a 1971 episode of the BBC chatshow Parkinson. “But we have to live in the present, and you can burn the past.” This new eight-part Apple TV+ project focuses on that same year’s cultural and sociopolitical landscape, framed through its groundbreaking popular music. The inclusion of the Ono clip shows that the series is aware of the pitfalls in yet another excursion into nostalgia.

The fact that Episode 1 starts with the beating not of a snare drum but of an American police baton on an unarmed protester is a deliberate attempt to recontextualise this 50-year-old history for today. Images of heavy-handed law enforcement retaliation to Civil Rights marches immediately recall Black Lives Matter showdowns. Footage of National Front rallies in Britain complaining about immigration chimes with populist, post-Brexit Britain. A photograph of the corpse of the Black activist George Jackson at San Quentin prison parallels the recording of George Floyd’s horrific street-side execution in 2020. As The Who contemptuously declare here, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In case this all sounds too heavy, 1971 never forgets its inspirational musical mission. The series is based on a 2016 book by the veteran British music journalist David Hepworth, which painstakingly, and persuasively, claims these 12 months as rock’s “golden year”. It’s a bold assertion, especially given the absence of the great game-changers of the 60s: The Beatles had split; Bob Dylan was nowhere to be seen.

And yet… the list of 1971’s classic albums is extraordinary. From the soulful social commentary of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, to the narcoleptic funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On; from the confessional singer-songwriter peaks of Carole King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue to the playful theatricality of David Bowie’s career reinvention on Hunky Dory; from the Rolling Stones’ raunchy, retro-blues rock on Sticky Fingers to The Who’s synthled futurism in Who’s Next, and many more LPs that still stack the upper ranks of Greatest Album polls.

Tina Turner, featured in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything

Series director Asif Kapadia and episode directors James Rogan and Danielle Peck play a stadium-sized riff on Hepworth’s more personal, chronological overview with themed episodes: drugs casualties, Black Power. The difference is encapsulated in the shift from the book’s self-deprecating subtitle, ‘Never a Dull Moment’, to the series’ self-mythologising ‘The Year that Music Changed Everything’. Accordingly, the huge cast of characters – the era’s biggest rock stars, journalists, Black Panthers, White House alumni and more – talk of the soundtrack to this unsettled, unsettling period with unfiltered sincerity, even wonder, so that Graham Nash’s plaintive “We thought music could change the world” doesn’t, temporarily, seem so naive.

Kapadia’s trademark technique of eschewing talking heads in favour of multiple voiceovers to connect footage is a neat way to camouflage which of the contributing principal stars heard are no longer with us and who’s been interviewed anew. It also invites greater period immersion. Amid familiar clips – John Lennon premiering ‘Imagine’ at his Ascot country pile, the Stones’ drugfuelled sessions in self-imposed Côte d’Azur tax exile – archive producers Ernest Stoddart and Gordon King have unearthed hidden gems: seldom-seen newsreel, TV appearances, rehearsal footage, stills. Monochrome scenes of an ecstatic studio audience witnessing James Brown’s ‘Soul Power’ on his Italian television debut, the gleaming articulacy of a grainy Gil Scott-Heron standup performance, access to Sly Stone’s home studio/drug den convey a genuine ‘you were there’ sensation.

It’s matched by a connoisseur’s approach to the songs. Music supervisor Iain Cooke constantly switches between anthems (Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’) and deep cuts (Bowie’s ‘Sweet Head (Take 4)’) to convey the depth of audio invention. Even better are the featured alternative versions, isolated vocal tracks or acoustic performances that revitalise old standards such as Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ or ‘Respect Yourself’.

Such attention to detail is what makes 1971 stand out from cut-and-paste those-were-the-days documentaries. If you can look past the very US/UK-centric stance (the influential Krautrock scene gets scant attention) and the way that the focus is skewed by the willingness to participate of artists or their estates – there’s no mention of an album many might consider 1971’s greatest, Led Zeppelin IV – this is a rock buff and pop-culture historian’s treasure trove: nostalgia that doesn’t need to burn the past, because it reveals how those turbulent times, especially their awe-inspiring music, continue to light up the present.

Further reading

Summer of Soul brings us the Black Woodstock, four decades late but still vital

Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson edits rushes shot by Hal Tulchin of a procession of Black musical legends performing at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, making a resounding time capsule of everything going on behind and in front of the concert.

By Devika Girish

Summer of Soul brings us the Black Woodstock, four decades late but still vital