How 1970s New York Shaped Music for Decades to Come

The story of a city in decline and the beauty that arose from the decay

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"If you know what the '70s are, or have any inkling where they're going," announced The Village Voice upon launching their "Invent the '70s" contest in 1973, "write to [us] and any feasible answers will be printed." This notion of the 1970s as having an identity crisis permeated all aspects of culture, from politics to fashion, but something extraordinary was afoot in New York City, a kind of parallel universe of invention and reinvention that not only defined the identity of the decade but also laid the foundation for cultural eras to follow.

In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, NPR and Rolling Stone music and pop culture journalist Will Hermes takes a fascinating "telescopic, panoramic, superhero" lens to what happened in the period between 1973 and 1978 that shaped the course of contemporary culture and popular music.

An excerpt to give you pause:

Much has been written about New York City in the '70s, how bleak and desperate things were. The city had careened into bankruptcy, crime was out of control, the visionary idealism of the '60s was mostly kaput. For a kid growing up then, it was pretty dispiriting. The '60s was an awesome party that we had missed, and we were left to drink its backwash. [...] Even the music was failing, it seemed. Jimi, Janis, and Jim were dead; the Beatles and the Velvet Underground had split. Sly and the Family Stone were unraveling amid mounds of cocaine. The Grateful Dead buried Pigpen. Dylan grew a beard and moved to Los Angles. R&B was losing power as slick soul and featherweight funk took over. Jazz and classical music seemed irrelevant—the former groping fusion or post-Coltrane caterwauls, and the latter dead-ended in sexless serialist cul-de-sacs.

There remains a myth that early- to mid-'70s—post-Aquarian revolution, before punk and hip-hop begot the new age—was a cultural dead zone.

And yet, amid the skyscrapers...down on the streets, artists were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataaa, and Grandmaster Flash hot-wired street parties with collaged shards of vinyl LPs. The New York Dolls stripped rock 'n' roll to its frame and wrapped it in gender-fuck drag, taking a cue from Warhol's transvestite glamour queens. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both bussed in from Jersey, took a cue from the elusive Dylan, combining rock and poetry into new shapes.

Downtown, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano were inventing the modern disco and the art of club mixing. Uptown, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars were hot-rodding Cuban music into multiculti salsa, making East Harlem and the South Bronx the global center of forward-looking Spanish-language music. In the wake of Miles Davis's funk fusions, jazz players were setting up shop in lofts and other repurposed spaces, exploding the music in all directions, synthesizing free-jazz passion with all that came before and after. Just blocks away, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were imagining a new sort of classical music, pulling an end run on European tradition using jazz, rock, African an dIndian sources, and some New York Hustle.

All this activity—largely DIY moves by young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream—would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world."

Though historically fascinating and an absolute treat for music geeks and New York lovers alike, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever is at its heart about creative entrepreneurship, about "people taking the lousy hands they'd been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence"—the same spirit of possibility and clarity of purpose that once reverberated through innovation meccas as diverse as the Renaissance and early Silicon Valley.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Faber & Faber

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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