Sweet greatness, the gold dust grit of the passing seasons, clinging onto each meandering memory-road like the tiny rose-tinted claws of a million perfect days—
“In spite of 1972 being one of the stalest years in the history of popular music, the spate of reissues from all the major record companies and countless minor ones picks up more speed all the time, and the results (uneven as they are) are generally encouraging.” – March 29, 1973, Lester Bangs review of The Best of BB King
This is an argument for re-assessment. It is not a character assassination of Lester Bangs. I must stress that. Lester and I, if I may use those three words, are about as likely to be called “enemies” as Theresa May is to be called “a dish.” We do, I hasten to add, share a lot of common ground. Lester and I (I did it again!) do agree that The Rolling Stones’ 1968-72 output, in concert and on record, is some of the richest and most salivatory sound-painting known to mankind. We also both prefer Peter Tosh’s Get Up Stand Up to Bob Marley’s – it just had more bite – and we’re on the same page when it comes to the beauty of Led Zeppelin’s lesser known opus “That’s The Way” – if it isn’t a Zep cornerstone, it certainly is a timeless nugget of gracious beauty. So we’re on good terms. Almost. But not quite.
I came across the passage from which the above quotation was printed while I was fumbling in the Rolling Stone archive of Lester Bangs’ reviews. It caught my eye because recently I’ve come to discover that 1972 was a hell of a year for music. Possibly even the year. 1969, yes, you can have your crown. ‘91, you have a claim, even if only because everyone who could have possibly made a convincing “I-was-there” case for ‘69 is either dead or prancing about some city pavement, tightly clad in rainbow-lycra with coloured beads hanging out of their beard. But to look retrospectively at the musical output of 1972 is to see a rich, purple-upholstered pleasuredome filled with emeralds and sapphires the size of space-stations. Several artists released albums which are still argued by a convincing proportion of their fanbase to be their defining moment: take Lou Reed’s Transformer and his producer David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything, and T.Rex’s The Slider. And that’s just for starters. Jackson Browne, Steely Dan and Big Star all released their debut albums in 1972. Neil Young’s Harvest came out in February. Deep Purple released Machine Head in March. The Rolling Stones gave us Exile On Main Street in May! Joy! Even soul music had a vintage year; Stevie Wonder worked up Music of My Mind and Talking Book, The Temptations released All Directions, which is worth a mention if solely for “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Bill Withers unleashed I’m Still In Love With You featuring “Simply Beautiful,” “What A Wonderful Thing Love Is,” and “Love And Happiness.” That looks like some list to me, man.
Perhaps Bangs was just suffering from post-Exile On Main Street-stress (I know I would be) and by 1973 had felt the need to wipe his slate clean. Maybe he’d listened to all these albums so much that he’d started to hate them. Whatever it is, it seems like it’s high time for music writers to start looking backwards for greatness, and having a more ambivalent attitude, or at least a less dismissive attitude, to what we are hearing today, because greatness would appear only to reveal itself once the first ripples caused by the ascent of its surfacing head have long since faded into the sea. Sweet greatness—