“Little kids like great hooks, interesting vocal styles, seamless arrangements. They like to dance. Nothing pretentious or self-important will do when the audience has a two-minute attention span and miniscule discretionary income. And so the bubblegum hits still sound great today, where much that was critically acclaimed in the same period lacks any distinction.”
Kim Cooper & David Smay, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth
It has come to my attention that in certain quarters in the UK (and elsewhere, I might add) the year 1971 has something of a canonical, near mythical status. It is the cornerstone in the great Classic Rock era, to be sure, and for some it is the best year for music, ever. This is a judgement based on the albums of the time, for the most part, with a few acceptable singles mentioned as icing on the cake*. I could be generous and say this is a generational thing, but as someone born in 1967 (and quite happy to rep for that year in any context) it strikes me as being anti-now, and also rather pretentious. To those who enjoy today’s music perfectly well it says “you don’t know anything about music, really, do you?” and it reaffirms the notions or ideas – however hazy – that things were better “back then” and encourages more repackaging of albums, more box sets, more rarity-hoarding and nostalgia. That these attitudes are held by and large by men and that all these products and thought pieces and so on are bought and held on to – more than a little defensively I think – by men just shows how the music industry latches on to people during adolescence and vice versa, and that relationship continues until that adolescent need ends, perhaps in middle age, perhaps only really in old age.
The appreciation of the past, an honourable thing in and of itself (as this here blog attests, or so I hope) gets mixed up with people effectively ring-fencing musical tastes and prejudices until all they end up buying are reissues and perhaps even music before their own era**, anything but music of the present, which is confusing, noisy, repetitive and soulless***.
Music writers find it easy to break down music into so many building blocks and categories, and some of those are given high honors – say, the albums of ’71 – while others are denigrated and hated. If we go back to that time – hey, we’re here already! – we can see that while it’s the older brothers and sisters who are buying the albums, it’s the kids who are buying the singles, and that older sibling disdain for kid stuff is by now so hard-wired into music that the arbiters of what is “good” if not “the best” would look at this band and this single and throw it unhesitatingly in the trash.
Which would be a big mistake, and is the 1971 brigade’s problem, not the kids’.
The profoundization of music that has happened in the mid-to-late 60s has made for a lot of beautiful music, sure, but what 7-year-old has any use for something that drags interminably on, has no real beat, has (ugh) solos and sounds vaguely unhappy? None, that’s who, and as the albums world grew ever more serious and strange, the world of singles – bubblegum singles – grew as well. And one of the main offshoots of bubblegum? That’s right, glam.
With this single we now well and truly enter the Void, a place that is not at all dark or lonely but shiny-shiny stompy-stompy and multi-colored as a candy store. Only an industry so taken with taking itself so seriously could churn this stuff out on the one hand and then uniformly dump it into the Void on the other, as if it was all some terrible mistake, and that all those album-oriented acts were making better music the whole while, more important music, more influential music…but for now there’s little kids to be exploited (more on that theme later, obvs.) via dolls, actual bubblegum, cereal boxes, lunchboxes, posters/t-shirts/decals – all of which they will later outgrow and reject for more “serious” music when they grow up. It is that music that they get attached to late that will be what the industry will then exploit again, but with the added vehemence of adolescence, which as we know can be felt at 100 paces and practically glows in the dark.
It can be hard, in the midst of all this, just to appreciate the darn music and enjoy it for what it is. Bubblegum is great stuff and even the lesser songs have a charm and unpretentiousness to them that is hard to resist. The Sweet (formerly Sweetshop) were a band in need of a song; they went to fledgling songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman**** and asked for one, and here it is; produced by Phil Wainman, it is perhaps not what the band would have liked (their b-sides, self-written, were more rock, less bubblegum; they played them live and avoided their hits as best they could) but a #2 hit is nothing to sneer at; it got the band noticed as the first glam band besides T. Rex to have a huge hit, and this perhaps was enough. (Slade’s first hit single around this time did fine, but they were still to crack the Top 10.)
The whole bubblegum/glam dynamic of hopped-up kids screaming and singing along and jumping up and down on their beds to their favourite song doesn’t really sit well in the considered views of those who prefer their music to be, well, grown-up; the very idea of presenting a year like a canon to be studied in college, as opposed to enjoyed outright as pure pleasure is a dead end for music itself.
I know the crossed-arms-tilted-head sceptics have drawn lines, but the magic – yes – of music is that it obliterates all lines, or rather has so many lines within it that it merely laughs at those who have cornered themselves, smug in their self-assuring circles that they have reached the peak, and all they see around them are valleys. Ultimately I think this isn’t refinement but repression; repression dressed up and decorated with words like ‘heritage’ or ‘vintage’ or ‘for the more discerning listener.’
From my perspective, all this is trying to chain music when all it wants is to be free; Sweet fans have reasons to be grateful that their band and this song haven’t been captured and frozen in ‘the canon’ for perpetuity. Glam is just warming up now, about to comfort and electrify in turn a nation that needs cheering up; a nation that was happily buying, on a regular basis, quickly made cover albums of recent hits, a kind of sub-bubblegum (“Co-Co” is featured on this album) that calls into question whether the “outpouring of creativity” of singer-songwriters and bands was all that valued in the first place. Songs like this one are what the 1971 brigade are running away from, when there is nothing scary here, just an "inoffensive, jaunty hit" that kids of all ages can enjoy. To be against that is to pretty much be against music itself.
Next up: because sing-a-longs are what summer's about.
*Strangely enough, three of the singles mentioned in The Word editorial were never UK hits - "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight didn't chart, "Ain't No Sunshine" was a hit for Michael Jackson, not Bill Withers, in '72 and the only "Black Magic Woman" ever in the UK charts was the Fleetwood Mac original from '68.
**Well, who was buying all those Vera Lynn albums back in 2009?
***This is known casually as the ‘Ian MacDonald syndrome’.
**** Who also wrote “Tom Tom Turnaround” for New World and “Chop Chop” for Tony Blackburn, not to mention other early Sweet hits “Little Willy” and “Wig Wam Bam.”