The Shock of the ’70s

In my lifetime, I suspect there’s never been a decade that marked such a break with the past than the 1970s.

Sure, the 50s (rock n roll, the invention of the teenage consumer) and the 60s (hippies, counterculture) started the ball rolling; but it was the 1970s when modernity / change went mainstream.

The pace of cultural change between 1969 and 1972 was startling.  It was as if somebody pulled a switch and re-calibrated everybody, almost overnight.  I only realise this in retrospect, now having lived through subsequent decades, and not noticed much difference between any of them, frankly, apart from, in this century, a gradually-increasing conservatism.  Subsequent decades have all segued gently into each other; but the ’70s was a dislocation decade; it kicked you up the arse, into the future.

In the late 1960s, things were pretty much culturally un-disturbed in my late parents’ world. Men wore 3 piece serge suits and shined their wing tip shoes and black lace-up boots before socialising and before church (finished off with Dubbin if walking in inclement weather).  “Dressing down” might mean replacing the waistcoat with a v-neck cardie over the shirt and tie.  Trilby hats were common; and flat caps were everywhere.  My folks drove a Morris Minor and listened to 78 records on a large gramophone with a polished wooden cabinet 5 feet tall.  The needles were copper.  The needle holder cum soundbox was an elaborate chrome affair.  Lighting was the soft glow of gas mantles.  They had vaguely heard of the Beatles, but thought they were silly.  Houses were whitewashed, with corrugated or thatched roofs. Fridges didn’t exist; we had an outdoor dairy with thick walls and buckets of milk cooling in a through-flow water bath; and salted pork in pitch-sealed half-barrels in the corner.

One day, when I was aged 4 or 5, I remember everything being piled into the Morris Minor.  I stood on our old house’s street (“yard”, in American-ese) at dusk, watching the Minor, with its chrome and curves, and open-down bootlid extended, driving slowly down the lane to the shiny new burnt orange 70s pebble-dashed bungalow.  In that moment, while I couldn’t elucidate it fully, the stab to my heart was the realisation that the family car was going through a time portal.  I remember seeing a violin case and a bottle of HP sauce atop the load.  Obviously, it was the last few items from the old house.  I don’t remember any other items being transported, but I remember the last run for the small items vividly, as if it was 5 minutes ago.  Generally, when a memory snapshot stays with you, that’s because that image at the time triggered some strong emotion.  I was ambivalent about the move; excitement at the new tempered with a feeling that we were abandoning the old.  The shiny new place, all chrome, lava lamps, plastic and steel chairs and bright electric lights, seemed glamourous but did not (yet) feel like home.  It felt like the ending of an era; and, in many ways, it was.

There was a real sense of “out with the old, in with the new” in the 70s.

Bungalows came out of nowhere; there was nothing Irish (or British) about them; but everyone wanted one.  Some of the designs – the inverted V model house to this day is fantastically modernist and minimalist in a way that Lloyd Wright would have approved of.  And yet, these things were being built by folk with no great (or any) interest in architecture.  Hard to find any examples on the Internet, and most have been either demolished or altered beyond recognition.  1970s houses had poor insulation, single-pane windows and death-trap wiring etc; so much objectively can and should be done to improve such houses’ efficiency and safety ratings.  Unfortunately, when carrying out such necessary updates, developers, if they haven’t unleashed the bulldozers, cannot resist the urge to “improve the design”.  That is, they make it more pretentious and more traditional.  Which misses the point completely; but that’s developers for you.  Fortunately, this old ’70s classic bungalow, a few miles away from where I grew up, somehow has survived the 1990s cull with its wonderful, unpretentious lines as yet intact and mercifully free of design “improvements”:

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that this revolutionary instinct didn’t last long – by the 1990s, Irish houses had once again become much more conservative and once again sought to incorporate perceived “traditional” design references.

And it wasn’t just old houses that were discarded in the 1970s.  Usually conservative people went on a frenzy of scrapping anything that was old.  Once a family built “the bungalow”, all the everyday objects in the old house, most of which were still in good nick, were nonetheless dumped.  People seemed to want to shake off the everyday reminders of the previous era; as if they couldn’t bear to bring “old stuff” into the new house.

Our wonderful old gramophone cabinet was dumped in a barn and used to store vegetables.  Well-made (and well-nigh indestructible) artisan wooden furniture was dumped unceremoniously and replaced by less sturdy chrome and plastic 1970s chairs and new things called “sofas” and “pouffes”.  We also got a bright red cube (with integrated bumpers, a plastic dashboard and a gear lever coming out of the dash) called a Renault 5.  Compared to the gentle curves and chrome of the Minor, it was from another planet.  Houses, or indeed anything that could be painted “burnt orange”, were painted burnt orange.  Any dessert or food that came in a plastic packet was prized.  (I’ve dined at Michelin-starred places with their amuse bouches and their palate cleansers, but few things are as good as a proper packet lemon meringue pie, albeit with home-made base; and not forgetting Duck a l’Orange and the Arctic Roll.)  Very quickly, suits were abandoned, and young men started showing up at my Dad’s tailoring shop to request increasingly outlandish embellishments to their ’70s denim and velvet gear.  Young people who couldn’t afford a new pair of trousers, or who couldn’t source a sufficiently-outrageous flare in local shops, would come to Dad with extra fabric to be cut into triangles and sewn into the lower-leg seam.  Naturally, extra style points for flare-inserts with clashing colours (old curtains and patchwork bed-spreads were often pressed into service in this manner):

You have to remember Dad trained in the Tailor & Cutter Academy in London’s West End before WWII.  He was an exceptionally diplomatic man, and the customer was always right, but I wonder what he made of it all : )  I remember Dad smiling as he noted that one particular pair of custard yellow flares had the exact same dimension (30 inches) around the waist as they did around the bottoms …  Those flying banana trousers would be teamed up with (and I’m thinking of a neighbour lad a few years older than us, whom I looked up and whose style I tried to copy as best I could): hair curled out over your ears and down your back, a short, waisted, electric blue or green velvet jacket with very wide lapels, a shirt with ridiculous collars, a kipper tie or a medallion, brown plastic platform boots and the Brut 33 dripping off him.  Topped off with a 1.6 Ford Capri + furry dice if you were rich; any old heap of scrap if not.  Sorted …

I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car in our local village in the early ’70s as 2 shabby apparitions walked past.  2 local young people, each with massive flares obscuring their shoes and trailing on the pavement, each with long hair down their backs, each with a shapeless oversized top.  Mum and Dad, tried, and failed, to guess whether they were 2 men, or 2 women, or 1 of each, or neither : )

I wanted to be like them, that was for sure.  Until punk happened 3 or 4 years later and then it was all about short hair and trousers so tapered that you had to use WD40 to get your foot out the bottom (not quite, but it would have helped).

The pace of<cultural change> in those years was unprecedented.  Fashions changed radically, and totally (none of your mix n match atomised you tubery here), every few years.  Ditto music.  It was an era when the revolution ceased to be a minority West Coast hippies pastime.  In the North of Ireland and in Britain, class war, political war, women’s rights, all came to the forefont; and all against a backdrop of glam rock, pounding disco and raucous punk.  There was a heady lawlessness, a general contempt for rules (1970s Health & Safety is a contradiction in terms) and for tradition and a general feeling that the old guard had no clothes.  Of course, along came Thatcher, but she too was a revolutionary. There was a cultural anarchy about the ’70s that has never been matched since.  And the cultural ruptures of that era found their echoes in the year zero nature of the brand new everyday artefacts of the times.  Here are some examples of how, in the 1970s, even one’s quotidien artefacts were iconoclastic:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

Reminds me of an everyday scene in the playground at Omagh CBS in the 1970s – a circle of goons chanting “Oy! Oy! Oy!” while two flared long-hairs with stacked heels tried to knee and kick each other in the face : )

Essentially, in the early to mid-1970s, every bloke was trying (and failing) to look like Rod – I tell you, in the 1970s, I hardly knew any boy or young man that that didn’t desperately want to have a shaggy dog / artichoke haircut like Rod’s – of course, you would be expelled from school / fired from work with it nowadays, but, back then, this was the cut du jour if you wanted to be somebody:

(In the ’70s and ’80s, I had spiky hair and a mullet and a flick at my boys grammar; nobody batted an eyelid as most of the older lads had hair down their backs – even our school rules confirmed that, at our all boys school, one droopy ear-ring was fine.  If they’d tried to ban ear-rings, they’d have had to expel about 1/3 of the boys.  Ironically, the local girls convent grammar at the time only allowed stud ear-rings for the girls – the boys’ school had a more liberal ear-rings policy than the girls’ school.  It wouldn’t happen now …)  You look at pictures of old football teams from that era; they all looked like long haired layabouts – nowadays, by contrast, they all look like they’re in the army.  Certainly more conservative times.

From this:

To this (this was a 1970s tranny – means something very different today!):

From these:

To these:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To these (I had a 70s skateboard, orange, naturally):

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