Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

It's the '70s Once More

Its influence returns to popular culture

Published: May 3, 2014 06:36:13 AM IST
Updated: Apr 22, 2014 12:04:42 PM IST
It's the '70s Once More
Still from Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om

When the french house duo Daft Punk released their latest album Random Access Memory last year, it immediately became a hit with fans all over the world. Younger listeners loved the synthpop fused with techno and funk —they found it novel and innovative. The song ‘Get Lucky’ was a standout number, with its pop-electronic influences producing a sound that had never been heard before. Or had it? Watching youngsters sway and dance to ‘Get Lucky’, older music fans may have smiled quietly to themselves. They knew what was going on. Years, even decades ago, in the pre-internet Jurassic era, forbears of Daft Punk had produced almost the same sound except that, at that time, it was all seen to be very avant garde and niche. Remember Kraftwerk, the Germans who broke the barriers set by the sweet bubble gum pop of Abba? Or ‘Popcorn’, the silly but peppy dance number by Hot Butter, which fully exploited the new Moog, which was a revolutionary new invention? Or Giorgio Moroder, the Italian master who pioneered synth disco and electronica? No surprise at all then that Daft Punk has a track called ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, which features a monologue by him talking about his career. A very Meta moment indeed.

All these are groups from the 1970s and Daft Punk has cleverly and ingenuously brought back music from the period and given it a contemporary twist. But a question arises in the mind: Is this experiment by Daft Punk a homage or just a canny recognition that the ’70s are now experiencing a revival in popular culture?

Look around you. Even in India. Director Farah Khan, with a keen sense of that time, made Om Shanti Om which accurately reproduced the kitschy confections of the ’70s a la Manmohan Desai—loud colours, weird hairstyles and bell-bottoms. It was all a joke, of course, but Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, about urban Naxalites, was an altogether more serious re-examination of the romantic impulses of a generation.

The ’70s, a decade we had presumed long dead and buried, is now visible all over the place. Popular culture—cinema, music and ads—are the obvious, in-your-face manifestations, but even in other, more subtle ways, we are seeing a return to a time varyingly described as innocent and colourful or socialistic and grim, depending on where you stand. There is an amber glow of nostalgia about that period in India’s history, when things were definitely simpler, but equally, there are those who think that India, then a closed economy, lost out on decades of potential growth for which the misguided policies of the 1960s and ‘70s were responsible. Yet, for the most part the ‘70s are viewed today as a wonderful time. Nor is this limited to those who actually lived through those days; I have heard numerous youngsters say they wished they had been around in the ‘70s.

It's the '70s Once More
Image: Wall Street movement: Corbis
Demostrators at Occupy Wall Street movement in NYC

How do we define the 1970s? The literal way to do it would be to bookend it between January 1, 1970, and December 31, 1979. But that would be wrong. What we term today as the ‘70s really began in the decade earlier, segueing smoothly into the next few years and continuing till the very early 1980s. The decade-and-a-half stretch saw the emergence of women’s lib, hippies, mind-bending substances, changed sexual attitudes and, of course, some great rock music and dubious fashion sense. But that
was also the era of wars (and anti-war movements), student unrest and the dropout generation which wanted nothing to do with the entrenched system. Instead of chasing careers, this cohort chased dreams, of a better, more equitable world, peace and harmony. ‘Imagine there’s no country’, sang John Lennon; Steppenwolf was even more forthright in their anthem of letting it all go when they sang ‘Born to be Wild’.

This new energy affected India too, even if the concerns were vastly different. As a poor country it was more preoccupied with feeding its multitudes, fighting droughts and, as extreme leftist movements burst forth, keeping a check on internal turmoil. Young students from elite colleges, angry at the inequities of the status quo, left their comfortable lifestyles and went to the villages to help start a revolution. Lack of jobs and a suspicion of business meant that a youngster with dreams of a better life and an entrepreneurial streak had little option but to leave India. (Meanwhile, young boys and girls from western middle-class backgrounds, fed up of rampant consumerism, left their comfortable lifestyles and came to India in search of nirvana.)

Do we see a replay of that in the current burst of enthusiasm for a new brand of politics, which seeks to question the old order?

Probably not, since the fundamental ideology is quite different, but the fervour and idealism of the middle-class today echoes what happened all those decades ago. The same is the case with the short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement in the US which reflects dissatisfaction with the banker fat cats who get the cream while the middle-class loses jobs and homes.

Too much must not be made of these straws in the wind. Nor should simple nostalgia and a remembrance of things past make us imagine that we are living in ‘70s redux. Much has changed all over the world and India is a radically new country today. It is laughable to even visualise a time when one had to wait for years—that’s right, years—to acquire a phone connection and when entire families used to land up at the home of a well-off neighbour to watch television shows in the evening. Not just consumer goods—cars, refrigerators, even scooters—were in short supply, but there was a scarcity of food grains, milk and butter too.

However, while we do not want a return to those times, the romantic naivete of the era does have a certain charm.

The ‘70s were a magical time which continues to have a hold on our collective imaginations even today, something that cannot be said about other periods in our recent history. A younger generation today still has The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Doors on its iPod playlist (the hipsters play vinyl records on their turntables). The Rolling Stones have not gathered any moss. Will Justin Bieber survive that long? The answer to that, my friend, is ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and author. His latest book, India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation, explores the history of India during the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)