Time Machine » The 1970s

The 1970s was the disco decade, a time of political upheavals and polyester suits. As old wars ended and new ones began, the cultural fringes of the 1960s entered the mainstream, while antique and vintage looks were enthusiastically embraced by a public hungry for something a bit more adventurous than avocado green and harvest yellow.

In the home, the mingling of disparate styles from different eras meant that Art Deco lamps adorned with female figurines often sat on Mid-century Modern George Nelson end tables or next to molded-plywood Eames chairs. On kitchen walls, Trimline telephones hung, waiting to ring. In garages across the land, gas-guzzling Mustangs and Chevelles sat idle, waiting out the decade’s multiple gasoline shortages. Upstairs, little girls quietly engaged in role-play games with their Barbie dolls, while little boys made an unholy racket by adding top-of-their-lungs sound effects to their Hot Wheels cars.

1970s Technology and Culture

After the near-tragedy of Apollo 13 ("Houston, we’ve had a problem."), missions to the moon proceeded through the end of 1972 and Skylab launched in 1973. Three manned trips to the space station followed within a year—Skylab eventually fell out of orbit and crashed in Australia in 1979. Despite the Cold War, an Apollo-Soyuz project went ahead in 1975, and in 1977, a pair of unmanned Voyager space probes were launched, one to Jupiter and Saturn, the other to Uranus and Neptune.

The decade’s technological innovations weren’t limited to space exploration. 1970 was the year that both the microwave oven and the VCR were introduced to consumers. Intel and Texas Instruments developed the first microprocessors in 1971 and 1973 respectively. That set the stage for the first microcomputers, which were available by the end of the decade but only embraced by the geekiest electronic-hardware hobbyists and aficionados. More widespread was the acceptance of digital wristwatches with easy-to-read LED numbers on their faces rather than hands.

Culturally, the 1970s picked up where the 1960s left off. In the United States, the decade began with the nation’s first Earth Day in April of 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to guarantee equal rights for women (the amendment ultimately failed, though, because not enough states ratified it by its 1982 deadline). And the sexual revolution continued apace, with publications such as "Our Bodies, Ourselves" in 1970 and Alex Comfort’s illustrated "The Joy of Sex" in 1972 leading the way.

1970s Movies and TV

In fact, sex was everywhere in the 1970s, especially in the movies. Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal canoodled in "Love Story" (1970) and Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider gave "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) its infamous X rating. Of course, Hollywood had a few other things on its mind. "MASH" (1970), "Catch-22" (1970), and "The Deer Hunter" (1978) were just a few of the 1970s films to tap the anti-war sentiments of the time, while "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) explored society’s simultaneous fascination with violence. Two "Godfather" films (1972 and 1974) followed the history of a New York mob family—both films won Academy Awards—while "The Exorcist" (1973) was the first big-budget horror flick.

The 1970s also shined a spotlight on two of the world’s greatest visual storytellers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg made his mark with "Jaws" in 1975—in 1977, he followed up that blockbuster with the science-fiction epic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." That film might have been the year’s biggest were it not for a mid-budget space-epic called "Star Wars." Writer-director George Lucas had to give up much of his fee in order to get the picture made. In exchange, he kept sequel and merchandising rights, which, given the film’s five sequels and enormously popular Star Wars toys and collectibles, turned out to have been one of the smartest moves in film, or maybe even business, history.

On the small screen, cable had yet to make much of an impact, although HBO’s live 1975 airing of the Ali-Frazier "Thrilla in Manila" heavyweight fight was a major technological and media breakthrough. Programs like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-1977) and "All in the Family" (1971-1979) brought the cultural questions of the day into U.S. living rooms. In the U.K., "Monty Python’s Flying Circus" (1969-1974) paved the way for a U.S. comedy program, "Saturday Night Live," which first aired in 1975 and continues to be a force on television to this day. Also in the U.K., "Doctor Who" enjoyed its most popular years in the late 1970s.

1970s Music

For music fans, the decade began with the triple-whammy loss of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, all of whom died in 1970 of drug overdoses. A death of a different sort occurred in April of that same year when Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the Beatles.

For some, such losses seemed the end of the world, but for many more, the beat went on. Fans of Led Zeppelin, The Who, and the Rolling Stones got all they could handle from their musical heroes, who achieved levels of popularity and financial success they could not have imagined in the 1960s. British psychedelic rockers Pink Floyd released "The Dark Side of the Moon" in 1973—it remained on the charts throughout the 1970s and even into the 1980s. San Francisco’s Grateful Dead took a hiatus in 1974 and then regrouped in 1975 with the jazzy "Blues for Allah"—one track included a jam with live crickets. And Michael Jackson released his first solo effort in 1972, as did Steely Dan, who, along with many other artists, fused rock and jazz impulses to create progressive rock.

There was lots of room in the 1970s for those who enjoyed hopping on bandwagons, as well as those intent on carving out their own niches. Thus, it was possible for a movement like Northern Soul in England to spark enormous interest in obscure U.S. rhythm-and-blues acts from the 1960s such as the Magnetics, the Cashmeres, and The Tams, even after such acts, who were never that popular to begin with, had long faded from view.

As for bandwagons, disco and punk were easily the biggest. Disco was propelled into the public’s consciousness by the popularity of the film "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and its light-footed star, John Travolta. The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and The Trammps made the music that made people dance. And because of the movie, a provocative poster of a grinning Farrah Fawcett became a must-have wall decoration in the bedrooms of young boys everywhere.

Punk was brewing on the other side of the tracks. Spearheaded by the Ramones in New York (debut album, 1976) and The Clash and Sex Pistols in London (both of whom had debut albums in 1977), punk was the antithesis of the slickly produced sounds of disco. The Clash were influenced by reggae (the 1970s were also prime years for Bob Marley), while the Sex Pistols wanted to sow seeds of chaos and anarchy—ironically, millions of kids ignored the message, choosing instead to merely ape the look of their anti-heroes.

1970s Fashion and Style

Indeed, many of the decade’s most popular styles had their roots in pop music. The Carnaby Street mod look of the swinging ’60s gave way to a punk uniform codified in clothing boutiques and hair salons around the world—leather pants and jackets, dangling chains, safety pins everywhere, and hairdos that featured colorful Mohawks and aggressive spikes. For true disco fans, platform shoes and polyester shirts were almost mandatory. And the tie-dyed, bellbottomed, leather-fringed style of the San Francisco hippies was replaced by the preppie look that had been made famous in "Love Story."

As in previous decades, fashion took a lot of its cues from Hollywood, most famously in the style championed by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar winner, "Annie Hall." Keaton’s attire was a far cry from the mini-skirted, Go-Go-girl look of the 1960s. That would not do in a world whose consciousness had been raised by feminism. Thus, Keaton’s character wore lots of layers that hid her figure. Instead of heels she wore boots, instead of shawls she wore men’s-style jackets, and if she donned a hat, she made sure it was one that could be pulled down tight over her forehead.

Elsewhere in the fashion world, prints were in, especially ones from India and the Third World. Halston created minimalist eveningwear, the sort of thing you put on before heading to Studio 54. Ossie Clark revived the bias-cut dress. Even the "chubby," a waist-length jacket from the 1940s, made a comeback, although sometimes ostrich feathers were substituted for traditional longhaired fur. By the end of the decade, women’s hairstyles had begun their evolution into the manic manes of the big-hair ’80s.

1970s Sports

HBO’s Ali-Frazier fight was just one of countless memorable contests. In 1973, female tennis star Billie Jean King trounced self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes," while baseball legend Hank Aaron bested Babe Ruth’s home-run record (Aaron finished his career in 1976 with 755 homers). The Oakland A’s won the World Series for three straight years (1972-1974), the Cincinnati Reds took the next two (1975-1976), and the New York Yankees snagged the two after that (1977-1978). In football, the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1972 and 1978, while the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers each managed a two-year streak (1973-1974 for the Dolphins, 1975-1976 for the Steelers).

Some collectors snapped up sports cards for all those winning teams, as well as memorabilia from all those World Series and Super Bowls. Others looked around and noticed a lot of deals, from costume jewelry from the 1930s and ’40s to women’s dresses and men’s suits from the 1950s and ’60s. First-edition books by some of the century’s greatest authors were still affordable, as were pre-World War II Martin guitars. And if a generation of children hadn’t decided to actually play with all those Star Wars action figures at the end of the decade, their parents might have been able to sell the lot of them to pay for their college educations!

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